Bella sagged into her bed at the end of a long day. She had been home for a week and immediately cast into her old position of servant and housekeeper for her family. Her sisters seemed barely shocked that she arrived without notice, or without them writing to her, and instead seemed annoyed at her being away at all. That she came with no gifts for them, they found equally insulting.
Her father did not seem as ill in truth as she had seen in the mirror. Or perhaps she was merely finished with treating him as an infant for every minor ailment. Yesterday, he admitted the reason she had been requested as governess was because he had tried to take Rosie from the house.
Bella could understand how it must have seemed to her father, but she could not excuse his deceit in leading her to believe the arrangement was because of George’s debt. When she defended Leo and his relationship with Rosie, her father insisted she was wrong and sent her to the kitchen. As far as Bella could tell, the only person that seemed to appreciate her presence was Cook.
She rubbed her aching feet and then stretched her back. The truth was, she had eagerly launched herself into Leo’s troubles. It seemed she felt some innate need to rescue people. The difference was she felt appreciated at the Castle and Leo never took her assistance for granted.
“Enough about him. You knew him only a few days and in the end…” Bella trailed off. For, in the end, he proved exactly what she had seen in the beginning. Perhaps not exactly, but neither was he what she had believed him to be.
“George was right,” she mumbled before she fell asleep. She needed to find some way to live life on her terms.
The next morning, Bella awoke at her usual time and immediately began chores. By mid-morning, she had accomplished much of her to do list. The difference between planning a fine meal and ball for a duke and scrubbing in her father’s house was stark, however. Unexpectedly, she heard a vaguely familiar male voice calling out in the hall.
“I will see to it,” Bella told Cook.
Arriving upstairs, she stopped in her tracks. “Lord Morgan?” She rubbed her eyes in disbelief.
“Miss Beauley,” he executed a perfect bow, even as his eyes scanned her stained apron. “Forgive me. No one answered my knock.”
Bella hastily wiped her hands on the offending garment and then attempted to untie it. “Allow me,” he said and came behind her to undo the string. His presence unnerved her. Freed from the apron, she invited him to the drawing room.
“This is a fine home,” Morgan said, and Bella felt the weight of ridiculous small talk.
“May I ask why you are here, Lord Morgan?”
“You suddenly vanished, Miss Beauley. One minute we were enjoying each other’s company at Erroll’s ball and the next you left without a word.”
Bella blushed but raised her chin. “I would not say it was so sudden as that. I had previously left your side.”
Morgan nodded his head. “Yes, to dance with Erroll but you did not return to the ballroom. I worried.”
His tone sounded almost hurt and deeply concerned. “I apologize,” Bella said before recalling his plans with Leo. She would not be made to feel the villain here. “However, I believe you spoke with His Grace and did not seem concerned about my whereabouts then.”
Morgan’s eyebrows raised high. “You heard my conversation with Erroll?” Bella nodded her head but would not explain how. “And that offended you in some way?”
His incredulity was obvious to her. “That you both should consider I would marry a man I had just met, with knowing very little of his character or temper, yes. That I would marry him without so much as being asked, moreso. I suppose you believed I would marry you based on your rank and wealth alone. To me, that is the highest insult.”
Bella had stood and begun pacing during her speech. “To think that Mrs. Hammond’s friendship was nothing but an insincere ploy!”
Lord Morgan shot out of his chair at that charge and stood before her, ceasing her movement. “Alice’s friendship was genuine. Do not lay such a charge on her feet. Will you listen to me?” He reached for her hand.
Bella pulled her hand away and turned her head. What could he say?
“It was Erroll’s idea!” He said angrily.
“I know!” Heat rushed into Bella’s cheeks.
“So you know that he loves you? I know he is ugly, but why not go back to him?”
“What?” Bella’s eyes snapped to his. She could not breathe as she waited for him to repeat the words.
“Erroll asked I marry you in exchange for half his income. I thought then that you were his mistress.”
“No!” Bella said and began to storm off.
“Wait! I apologize!” He called after her.
Bella whirled around, tears threatened to spill out of her eyes. “If he loved me, why would he wish I marry you?”
Morgan shrugged his shoulders. “He said he was dying. I assume he wished to protect you. He asked for me to become Lady Rosalyn’s guardian as well and to allow neither of you to enter the Castle again. If you want to know more, you would have to ask him.”
The world titled and Bella stumbled to a chair. She worked hard for breath, it felt as though someone stood on her chest. “Breathe, lass,” Morgan said as he thrust a glass of wine into her hand.
Oh, Lord. Leo loved her. He didn’t want to tell her because of the curse. Couldn’t he see that even if their time together was short, she would have rather spent it with him? He loved her enough to give her up. That was more than anyone had loved her before.
“How is he?” Bella asked when her mind began to calm. Morgan would not meet her eyes and remained silent. “Tell me!”
“We found him after you left. He had destroyed the South Drawing Room and was shouting, incomprehensibly. He was holding this,” Erroll held up the mirror.
“Where did you get that?”
“He has spent all day with Lady Rosalyn since you left. Every night he would hide in his study with books and the mirror—but it was broken. Four nights ago, I found him staring at this—whole, with no cracks. Tears filled his eyes and he chanted your name over and over again.”
Tears welled in Bella’s eyes. Leo must have consulted the magical books to find some way of fixing the mirror. And then his first desire was to see her?
“After he finally fell asleep, I took the mirror and determined to find you. I needed to understand what happened.”
“You can never understand,” Bella said and shook her head.
“Try to explain,” Morgan pushed.
Bella took in a deep breath and began to tell all she had experienced in the days since arriving at Leo’s Castle. Not caring if Morgan believed her tale, she needed to know how Leo and Rosie were. “Did anything unusual happen after Leo left the room? Was Lady Rosalyn safe?”
“If you mean to ask if this ghost of the duchess returned to haunting the Castle, I would say it did not appear so.”
“What use is that?” Bella cried and then recalled the mirror. “Let me see the mirror!”
Morgan handed it over. Bella watched as the mirror showed her George with a sword and breathing hard. “No, I do not worry about George now. Show me Leo! Show me the Duke of Erroll!”
Again, George appeared but this time, Bella noted he was not wearing fencing gear. Then, she saw Leo tossing a matching sword down. “I will not fight you, Beauley,” he said calmly.
“You will pay for what you have done!” George screamed and charged at Leo.
“No!” Bella cried in horror. Then, immediately a new fear emerged. “Rosie! Mirror, show me, Lady Rosalyn!”
Lord Morgan, disturbed by Bella’s reactions, leaned over her shoulder. They saw Rosie in a carriage, crying and begging to return back to the Castle.
“Who has her? Oh my goodness! What shall I do?” Bella stood to her feet and raced to the door. Her ring! It had allowed her to travel in the blink of an eye once before.
“Wait!” Morgan called after her.
Bella cast an impatient glance at him with her hand on the door.
“The carriage was mine. I believe my sister has chosen to take Lady Rosalyn from the Castle. We had discussed it before I left. If your brother is there and acting like a madman, Alice will do anything to ensure Rosalyn’s safety.”
Bella nodded her head. Of course, they had no idea of the curse and even Rosie did not understand why she could not leave. But, oh! Leo! Even now he could be dead. She only hoped she could get there in enough time to say goodbye.
“Thank you, Lord Morgan,” Bella said. She knew she had seemed hateful and ungrateful before. “I truly appreciate your coming. I must go, immediately. You do understand?”
“Of course,” Morgan said, and Bella raced up to her chamber. Sliding the ring on her finger, she twisted it and immediately stood before Sundridge Castle. Heart pounding, she ran toward the front entrance.
Leo lay panting on the floor of the great hall, blood pouring from the wound received by Bella’s brother. “I did not dishonor your sister!”
“No more lies! You called my debt and forced her to come here. And then you couldn’t keep your filthy hands off her!” George Beauley swung wildly, and Leo had only just enough energy to slide out of the way.
“No! She worked as a governess. You have heard lies.”
“I do not believe you! You killed your first wife. I am happy Bella got away before you ended her life too.” Beauley’s blade swiped Leo’s arm.
Were all Beauley males so hot headed? Even still, his words pierced sharper than the blade. Leo’s heart ached for missing Bella, but he too was glad she had left before he had ruined her life. She had become too embroiled with his concerns. And suggesting she marry Morgan? A life without love—for Morgan surely did not love Bella, no matter his pretty words on finding her enchanting—would be worse than death for her.
“Such an ugly, beastly thing. A monster. I would be doing the world a service to kill you,” Beauley said as he hovered over Leo.
“Do it, but ask if you think your sister would want you as a murderer. I already forfeited the duel,” Leo said, his chest heaving.
Beauley swore and took a moment to consider Leo’s words. Leo braced for the mortal blow. At this rate, his life was ending anyway. Before Beauley had made contact with his skin, and even now it was not a grave wound, Leo felt the life draining from him. Mrs. Hammond had taken Rosie away when a madman stormed into the house. His hours were numbered. Perhaps he had only minutes.
Suddenly, the door slammed open. “George!” Bella screamed.
Beauley immediately spun around and Leo jerked his head up, the movement making him dizzy. Forcing himself to focus, his eyes locked with Bella’s.
“Bella?” George asked amidst the confusion.
“George, stop this!” Bella demanded and walked closer.
“I am defending your honor,” Beauley said like a child blaming poor conduct on another one starting it first.
“My honor is entirely intact. I do not know what you have heard, but His Grace has always behaved well toward me.”
“But you came back so suddenly. Meg wrote to me of it. Then I heard of the ball. Several of the guests thought you were his mistress.” Leo said with far more disapproval than a man of the world such as he should have.
“Do you think I would do such a thing?” Bella asked angrily. “Do you really believe I would do that—even for you and your debt?”
George shifted his weight between his feet. “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
“Of course you didn’t. Do you think he forced me? If he managed to force himself on me, what are the chances of me then being able to escape? Or that he would have me act as hostess for his ball and mistress of his estate?”
“Oh…” George said and dropped the sword with a loud clatter.
Bella approached her brother, and they spoke in hushed tones. Or perhaps it was that Leo’s ability to hear was diminished by the sound of his heartbeat in his ears and a rushing sound.
Unexpectedly, they grew very close.
“Leo,” Bella’s sweet voice whispered.
He tried to respond, and no sound came out.
“What is happening?” Bella asked, her voice shaking.
“I do not know…” George replied. “I swear I didn’t wound him that badly.”
“No…look! He’s glowing!”
Leo felt his eyes begin to flutter open and something the size of a large dog threw itself on his chest and wept bitterly.
“There, there. All will be well,” he said uncertain as to why a dog wept on him.
“Papa!” At last, the creature croaked out, and Leo recognized the mop of curly hair was Rosie.
“How did she get here?” Bella asked.
“She opened the door and jumped from the carriage,” a disembodied voice broke in.
“Love you, Papa. Love you!” Rosie cried over and over again, and the tears dropped on his chest.
Leo rubbed her back. “I love you too, poppet. Be a good girl for Mrs. Hammond.”
“But I want to live with you and Miss Beauley!” Rosie cried.
“Miss Beauley has to go home, sweet,” he said gently. Was this his afterlife? Living with Rosie was no hell, but no Bella could not make it heaven.
“I am home,” Bella said and Leo tried again to focus his eyes. “Hush, rest now,” she said, and Leo obeyed.
Leo could hear nothing else. Instead, he had the sensation of being lifted into the air as bright lights assaulted his eyes. He was filled with warmness. Then, everything went black.
After what felt like an eternity, Leo awoke. His eyes opened with ease. He took in his surroundings. Bella and Rosie were curled up next to him on a bed. Bella’s eyes fluttered open.
“You’re awake,” she said with a smile.
“I’m alive?” he asked.
Bella slowly nodded, her smile growing.
“I’m alive,” Leo repeated in disbelief. “How?”
“Rosie,” Bella said. “She would not go with Mrs. Hammond. She would not leave you. You were freed by her love.”
Leo looked over at the child sleeping on his side. He would have never guessed all those years ago that loving Rosie would have broken the curse.
“And you are…staying?” he asked.
“Yes,” Bella said and smoothed a hand over her skirt. What was she nervous about?
“I admit I am a bit jealous of Rosie.”
“You are?” Perhaps he was not recovered enough for he was not following the conversation very easily. “Why?”
“She has your love,” Bella said.
A low rumble sounded in Leo’s chest.
“Why is my affection humorous?” Bella asked and sounded hurt.
“I’m not laughing at your confession, only how you confessed it. You’re jealous of a five-year-old!”
“I’ll remind you that you’ve not given me any reason to not be jealous,” she said raising an eyebrow and he laughed again.
Lifting one of her hands to his lips, Leo bestowed a tender kiss. “I love you Arabella Beauley. I am not worthy of your esteem but would be greatly honored by your hand in marriage.”
“I love you Leonard Sundridge, and I promise to never leave your side again.” Bella picked up his hand and kissed it. “So, you see I must marry you,” she added with a playful grin.
“Your brother is not around to run me through, is he?”
Bella shook her head. “No, everyone has left for home. And I am home. Where I belong.”
Leo smiled, marveling at how it felt to do so. “Why do you think Rosie is the one who broke the curse?”
“Because I had loved you for weeks, you silly man! Trying to make me marry Morgan!”
“I thought to do it because—”
“I know, I know,” Bella said and Leo smiled again. For the rest of his life, he would be grateful for this woman. “Rosie said it first, though.”
“Say it again,” Leo said and he hugged her close.
“I love you, Leo. Now, look in the mirror,” Bella said as she retrieved the enchanted mirror from the bedside table. She handed it to him and then returned to her position with her head leaning on his chest.
For the first time, when Leo looked in the mirror, he saw his outward image reflected back. The love of Bella and Rosie had done that and freed him not just from Celia’s curse, but it allowed him to see the good in him. He would never feel unlovable again.
“There we are,” he said. “Two beauties and their tamed beast.”
“You were never a beast to me,” Bella said before kissing his cheek, “but you made me a beauty.”
“You have always been, but I will gladly tell you hourly if it will give you peace,” he said before claiming her lips.
“I knew it would be a happy ending,” Rosie said sleepily from his other side.
Leo laughed to himself. A happy ending indeed!
I love this quote. And I try to remember it. Too often, as a wife, mother, author, businesswoman I freeze up in fear and demanding perfection. But I’m happiest when I give myself permission to *try* and forgive myself when I make mistakes. Can anyone relate?
Bella looked in the mirror in her dressing room and smoothed the gown. It had been a rush order for the dressmaker in the local village, but it was the most ornate gown she had ever worn. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach.
This night was to be a dinner and small ball with neighbors. Leo had asked her to act as hostess, and she had spent many hours, when not hunting for magical artifacts or reading the books for clues on how to end the curse, planning the evening with Mrs. Potter. Even more so, she would be blind to not notice Lord Morgan’s interest in her. It flattered her, and she could hardly conceive that she had gained the notice of a peer and future duke. The mirror in front of her was not Leo’s enchanted one, but when Bella looked in the mirror, she now saw a lady who had faced dangers and peril and came out stronger. She saw a woman who had the love of several friends instead of the mere necessity of her family. No, her physical features had not changed in the least, but Bella finally felt comfortable in her own skin.
“Oh, Miss Beauley,” Jenny sighed as she put the final touches on Bella’s hair.
“My brother will not be able to keep his eyes off you,” Mrs. Hammond had joined her and offered assistance.
Bella blushed. “Lord Morgan is very kind and civil.”
“Civil? I have never seen a man more smitten!” Mrs. Hammond gave the maid a conspiratorial look, “I think he may have selected his future duchess.”
“Me?” Bella jaw’s dropped to the ground. “Impossible!”
“He would be a fool to not see your worth.”
“Alice,” Bella said as Mrs. Hammond had asked her to call her last night after dinner. “I am nervous enough this evening.”
Alice nodded her head and allowed the subject to drop. “You are lovely, everything perfectly in place. You certainly look like you could be the real mistress of this estate. Surely that gives you some confidence?”
Bella smiled. It was nice to have an older woman to discuss matters with again. Alice was nearly old enough to be her mother but was more like an older sister. “It does.”
“And you could never claim to be ignorant. You will do splendidly!”
Toying with a necklace from Leo’s vault, Bella blew out a deep breath. She had managed her father’s household and her siblings. She had survived confrontations with a vengeful ghost and a trap intended to kill her. A dinner party and dancing she could navigate with her eyes closed. “I should check on matters again. You are certain you do not need my help, Alice?
“Jenny will be perfect. I will see you soon.”
The lady left, with the maid following after her. Just before leaving the room, the door connecting to Rosie’s nursery squeaked open. “You’re so pretty!” Rosie said in awe.
“Thank you,” Bella stooped down to speak with her on eye level.
Rosie shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Papa asked me to give this to you,” she held out a small box.
Bella took it and looked at it in wonder. Leo had already given her so much. His selflessness seemed unending.
“Lady Rosalyn?” Maria called from the nursery.
“Go now, love. Mrs. Potter has promised to send you up some of the sweets. Tomorrow I will tell you all about the ball.”
Rosie scampered off, and Bella opened the box from Leo. A note rested atop.
“A diamond does not compare to the sparkle of your eye. The finest jewels in the kingdom do not compare to the beauty of your soul. An enchanted ring for an enchanted beauty. Turn this ring and it will take you to your heart’s desire.”
Arabella held the note close to her heart for a moment. How did others see a beast? Leo was the kindest, gentlest man she had ever known. Looking in the box again, her eyes beheld the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. The diamond was a pale pink color and set as a rose. Bella slid it on over her gloves. It perfectly complimented her gown, complexion, and other jewelry.
Smiling radiantly, Bella left her chamber and descended the stairs. Guests would be arriving any moment, and she finally felt ready for the task. With the ring on her right hand, she felt as though she wore a special shield.
Unfortunately, she never had a moment alone with Leo to thank him for the gift. Lord Morgan monopolized most of her time. Leo had seemed to avoid her since Morgan’s arrival. At the moment he was circled by several female guests, each prettier and richer than the next. The dinner had gone perfectly, and now the ball had commenced. She had danced with Lord Morgan twice and several other gentlemen but craved a dance with Leo. As if he knew the nature of her thoughts, he turned, and his eyes met hers. Wordlessly, he left his companions and approached her.
“Miss Beauley, may I have the honor of this dance?”
“You may,” she smiled at him.
His brown eyes seemed guarded. All of his emotions were expressed in his eyes. She slipped her hand into his, and he led her to the dance floor. They spoke little during the set. They had always had an unspoken communion and tonight was no different.
And yet everything was different.
She had gentlemen paying her attention and had met so many people her head swirled to attempt to remember all the names. She had more stimulating conversation and laughed more than she had in many a week let alone a solitary evening. She felt she was on the verge of something great and wonderful. She even had a suspicion of what it was. Before she was ready for that, she desired to view her family in the mirror. A reminder of where she came from and who she once was would not be amiss. And she needed to know all was well without her.
“Leo, I wondered if I might use the mirror,” she asked as the dance ended.
The question caught him off guard, and he tensed. “All that I have is yours,” he smiled, and Bella imagined she felt the faintest of pressure added to her hand.
“I wanted to see how my family was doing,” she gave a shy smile.
“Of course. It would ease your nerves.” She nodded her head, and he pulled the mirror from his pocket. “Do not tarry too long,” he said as he put it in her hand.
Quickly agreeing, Bella departed to another room for privacy.
“Mirror, show me, my family.”
Bella watched in horror as she saw George ranting, drunk, at an assembled crowd. Next, she saw her home. Her father lay in bed, coughing. Meg and Kate talked in hushed tones wondering about a doctor and paying for it.
Fear seized her heart. Her family needed her! How could she choose between her family and Leo and Rosie?
“Mirror, show me,” she commanded, and the image changed to Leo in his study with Lord Morgan.
“Where is Miss Beauley, Erroll?”
“She will be along momentarily,” he took a sip of port.
“I know I fought this at first, but I am quite enchanted. She will make a splendid duchess.” Bella furrowed her brow. What did Morgan mean? He continued speaking. “You have selected a fine bride. Even Alice adores her.”
Leo said nothing but merely raised his glass in a mock toast.
Her hand flew to her mouth, and she thought she would be ill. Leo suggested Lord Morgan marry her? More than that! It seemed to be an entirely arranged matter, as though she had no choice or opinion. How could she have been so stupid and blind?
“A monster,” she muttered as she fled the room and tears streamed down her face. Leonard Sundridge, third Duke of Erroll was too arrogant, self-centered and selfish. And if she stayed a moment longer she might find herself betrothed to a man she knew little of but that she could never love him.
Tearing off her gown, she quietly changed into one of her old dresses and stuffed the remainder in a valise. Her elaborate hair she could not change. She would be unable to say goodbye to Rosie. Using the mirror, she saw the child sleeping peacefully. At least she had been able to bring the angel some peace.
Creeping down the stairs, Bella returned to Leo’s study to leave the mirror. One last time, she watched him in the mirror.
Leo stood before the fire of the parlor he spoke to Morgan in. His eyes looked pained and haunted. “Bella,” he said.
The mirror fell from her hands, startling Bella. It felt as though his eyes had been piercing hers, as though he could see her. Forgetting about Leo’s note, she worried the ring with indecision. Should she keep it as a reminder of the happy times she had here? Deciding to leave it behind, Bella began to slip the ring off her finger when suddenly the world began to spin and bright lights assaulted her eyes. Covering them, she cowered until the movement was over. When she opened her eyes, she stood before her family home.
Leo looked around the ballroom and could not find Bella. Her crimson gown would stand out against the sea of white dresses. Her red tresses made her distinct amongst the brunettes and blondes assembled. More than that, his heart could recognize her without seeing her, and he knew without a doubt she was not in the ballroom. Leo saw Morgan looking around for her as well. The time drew near when their betrothal was to be announced.
For his own sake, Leo desired to get it over with. Earlier, Morgan drew him aside to thank him, and Leo had the distinct desire to punch him in the face. However, that would only serve himself. Bella needed a husband, and Leo would never dare the presumption she could love him. The things he could offer: a title, wealth, luxuries, meant nothing to her.
Leaving the ballroom, Leo looked in a nearby parlor. Pausing at the fireplace, he leaned his arm on the mantle as though to draw strength from the mighty flames. Resting his head against his arm, he stared at the fire as it danced. It reminded him of dancing with Bella and how gracefully she moved. At least he would not have to live long without her. Anguish ripped through him at the thought. “Bella,” he rasped out.
Taking a deep breath, he continued his search. After several minutes, he found the mirror, discarded on the floor and the glass cracked. But there was no trace of Bella. An unholy terror surged in his breast. Had Celia somehow harmed her? Had she been taken?
Leo raced to the South Drawing Room Bella had made into a prison for Celia. “Show yourself!” He demanded as he walked to the center of the room, tip toeing around the debris of his dead wife’s tantrum the week before. He had told the servants to leave the mess be.
He heard Celia’s unearthly cackle before she appeared before him. “I win,” she said as she circled around him.
“What have you done with her?”
“I have done nothing. It was all you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You showed her the selfish beast you really are. I suppose she did not like Lord Morgan.”
“Celia…” Leo said in an angry tone, although there was nothing he could do. Any threats he made would be empty, and she knew it.
“You and your silly mirror. Child’s play! You had a magical tool but had no idea how to work it! I heard her explain to Rosie how you thought it worked.”
“Did you possess it? You showed her something that made her leave?” Although Leo had been reluctant to explore the magical texts, he did use them to understand more about the items he had retrieved from Celia’s room. He had discovered the ring was enchanted and that the mirror could be used for goodness or darkness—just as Bella had hypothesized.
“I showed her the truth! Her family lies in tatters because of you. You were going to treat her no differently than a piece of horse flesh—given to any bidder.”
“That’s not true,” Leo roared and suddenly heard murmurs behind him.
“What’s the problem here?” Morgan asked and shuffled into the room.
“Bella,” Leo said helplessly. The pain he now felt was worse than when the fiery beam that killed Celia fell on him. It was worse than the pain of neither parent loving him.
“What’s wrong with Miss Beauley?” Mrs. Hammond asked.
“She’s left,” Leo said as he turned and saw a group of curious onlookers and realized he stood in the middle of a room full of broken rubble, holding a broken mirror in one hand and had been shouting at no one.
“Erroll,” Morgan said in a warning tone.
“Lady Fitzwalter, might I show you the library next?” Mrs. Hammond directed the group onward.
“Such a pity,” one person muttered.
“A shame. From such good stock,” said another.
“Killed his wife, I always said,” was the harsh whisper of yet another person.
“Unseemly. You simply can’t find good help these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if the governess had his child in her belly. The way she acted mistress of the house!” An accusatory voice said in nothing like a whisper at all.
“Now, see here!” Leo said and strode after the offender, but Morgan pulled on his arm.
“Let it be. Idle gossip.” Morgan shook his head. “She really ran off?” Leo’s stony silence was confirmation enough. “Any idea where she would go?”
“To her home, I would guess.”
“Near Dumfries. Mrs. Potter has the name. You will go to her?”
“It is the honorable thing to do.”
Leo scrutinized Morgan’s face. “Do you love her?”
“Do you?” Morgan asked in a half warning, half accusatory tone.
Leo made no answer and stalked off. He was done with the ball and heirs. As he left, he heard Celia’s mocking laugh echo down the hall. She had won in one way, but not another. They were still imprisoned together, and the curse was never further from being broken than now, but Rosie did not need to suffer for it.
Creeping into the nursery, he pulled a chair next to her bed as she slept. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the father you needed, Rosie. I’m sorry I wasn’t the man she needed.”
He fell asleep in the early hours of the morning, holding the mirror in his hand.
“Papa,” Rosie’s quiet voice awoke him.
“Yes, Poppet?” Leo asked as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Why are you here?”
“I..I needed to tell you something.” He got up and stretched. Sleeping in a chair was definitely one of the worse ideas he ever had. “Miss Beauley left last night to visit her family. They needed her more than we do.”
Immediately, Rosie’s face fell. Her lower lip trembled, and tears filled her eyes. “But she will come back to visit?”
“Maybe,” he said noncomittingly.
“Can we see her in the mirror?” Hope filled Rosie’s eyes.
Leo held it up. “It seems it broke, but I will read and see if I can mend it. In the meantime, let us have a bit of fun today.”
Rosie gave him a slight smile. He was uncertain what constituted as fun for a five-year-old, having no memories of enjoying childhood himself, but when one’s governess quit without replacement, surely a day in pursuit of recreation was called for.
There was now one month until Rosie’s birthday and Leo hoped they could spend the time in peace and the mutual missing of Arabella Beauley from their lives. Besides time spent with Rosie, fixing the mirror would be his chief concern. He needed to see Bella one last time.
Bella, Mrs. Potter, and Maria gathered in the South Drawing Room. They sprinkled a mixture of salt and rose water around the windows and pianoforte but nowhere else.
“Do you really think it will work, ma’am?” Maria asked Mrs. Potter.
“It is worth a try, isn’t it?”
Maria frowned. “Unless it stirs her up something awful.”
“There, that’s the last of it for this room,” Bella said. “Now the book said to say the blessing three times while we join hands.”
The ladies formed a circle and repeated the strange words written on the yellowing page of a spell book. If they expected whooshing winds and loud banging from a discontent ghost, they were disappointed.
“How do we know if it worked?” Maria asked.
“I will retrieve Lady Rosalyn. We should go about business as usual but stay close.”
Bella went upstairs and found Rosie playing nicely with Jenny. “Lady Rosalyn, shall we try another music lesson?”
“Yes!” the girl raced to the door.
“Manners! Ladies do not run and gallop like horses.”
Rosie laughed but obliged. Arriving in the drawing room, Bella watched her charge closely. “Join me on the piano bench.”
Bella hesitated just before she reached the threshold of the salt. “Come along,” Bella said and patted the space beside her. “When we finish Cook has the strawberry biscuits you like.”
Rosie smiled and rushed forward, eagerly climbing up on the pianoforte bench. “Put your finger here,” Bella pointed to middle C on the keyboard.
Rosie obeyed and applied herself diligently for several minutes before her eyes wandered to the large windows. “Focus, Lady Rosalyn. A few more minutes and then we may take a break for the biscuits.”
“Miss Beauley,” Rosie whined, “I’m tired.” Rosie leapt down from the piano bench. “Can I look outside?”
Bella frowned. “You must make a choice. You can misbehave and be sent to the nursery, or come back and finish your lessons. If you show me you can listen then we can open the windows and enjoy the breeze while we eat our biscuits.”
“Mother wants me to come to the window,” Rosie chewed her bottom lip.
“What do you want to do?”
“Won’t I be a bad girl if I do not listen to my mother?”
Bella took Rosie’s hand and gave an affectionate pat. “I think you’re a good girl no matter what but there are consequences for bad choices.”
“What kinds of consequences?”
“No biscuits, for one. You will also not earn my trust.”
Rosie looked back and forth between the window and the bench several times before taking a step toward the bench. Then she stopped and Bella could see the child was trembling.
“Lady Rosalyn, is something wrong?”
“She is very angry,” Rosie whispered.
“Are you scared?”
Rosie nodded her head. “Come here,” Bella held out her hands. “She cannot hurt us here. We put a protective enchantment around the pianoforte.” As she said the words, Bella prayed they were true.
Rosie reached for Bella and climbed onto the bench. The temperature in the room dropped by several degrees.
“She is angry the windows will not open for her,” Rosie said.
Bella smiled triumphantly. It was working! “I had noticed she likes to play with them.”
A pillow from a sofa suddenly floated from its resting place. Then it soared through the air toward a window. Bella held her breath. Would it reach the window, or would the enchantment protect it?
The pillow fell to the ground before reaching the window, as though it met an invisible wall. Next, a vase followed its path. The loud clatter on it crashing on the ground caused Rosie to jump. Bella put her arms around her and pulled her close. “You are safe. She cannot hurt you.”
Tears rolled down Rosie’s cheeks. “Do you promise?”
“Yes, little one. His Grace and I and everyone in the Castle cares for you. We wish you to be free of your mother.”
“But doesn’t she love me?”
The confusion and hurt in Rosie’s face broke Bella’s heart. She wiped her student’s tears away as things continued to crash around the room. “Your mother was not well. Has no one told you?”
Bella suddenly realized that no one had told Rosie that mothers do not generally haunt their children. Rosie shook her head as confirmation. “My mother died a few years ago. I miss her very much.”
“Why do you miss her?”
“Because I cannot see her or speak with her anymore.”
“Like the princesses in the story?” Rosie’s eyes went round.
“Are you a princess?” Rosie regarded Bella with wonder.
Furniture scraped across the room and Bella wondered how long Celia would throw her fit. Did ghosts fatigue? At the same time, she knew that the other servants were spreading the mixture about the house. When they were finished, Celia would be locked in this room. “Heavens no!”
“You’re as pretty as princess!” Rosie said and squeezed her tightly.
“I do not think so, but thank you. Normally, when a person dies their soul leaves this world.” Rosie looked at her in confusion. “Have you seen a bouquet of flowers wilt?”
Rosie nodded and Bella continued. “Everyone must die, Rosie. Some may die young and some die old, but like the flowers they do not suddenly bloom again. They cannot persist living. Only an unfinished soul will stay on the earth.”
“Why did Mother not vanish?”
“She greatly disliked His Grace and wanted to hurt him. She does not mind using you to do so.” After Bella’s speech there was a flurry of crashes about the room. Bella could see Rosie felt conflicted by the information, but also afraid of her mother’s actions.
“Doesn’t she love me?” Rosie whispered.
“My dearest, I do not know if she can love anyone. Some people are deficient in loving others. It means there is something wrong with them not the others in their life. You are perfectly loveable.”
“No one loves me!” Rosie wailed.
Bella rubbed her back through her sobs. “I love you and everyone in the Castle loves you.”
“His Grace does not,” Rosie sniffled.
“Did you know he has a magic mirror?” Rosie shook her head. “And it only shows what a person most loves. He sees you in it.”
“He does?” The look of fragile hope in Rosie’s eyes, made bluer from the tears, made Bella’s heart weep.
“He does. Would you like to see it?” Rosie slowly nodded her head. “You are not afraid of him?”
“He is big and scary like a monster. He has fangs. There are big ugly marks all over his face.”
If Rosie had said such things to Bella mere days ago, she would have scolded the child for meanness. Now, Bella assumed Rosie saw the curse on him. And yet, it sounded like Leo saw the same image when he looked in the enchanted mirror. Leo and Rosie described Bella as beautiful, and she had seen herself as such in the mirror. What had Leo said? It reflected one’s true self? She refused to believe that of Leo. When she looked in the mirror, she saw him a man fit to be Adonis.
“When I am afraid, I like to learn more about it,” Bella said. “What if you learn more about His Grace?”
“You will be with me?”
“Yes, of course,” Bella said.
Rosie nodded her head but still trembled. “She won’t like it.”
“She will simply have no choice. Hold on to me,” Bella said and slipped a necklace over the child. Inside the locket was the enchanted mixture*.
Confidently, Bella stood and Rosie jumped into her arms. “We are leaving Celia. Enjoy the prison you have made for yourself. You will never hurt Rosie again.”
Bella forced herself to walk calmly through the room and remain unflinching even when objects flew around her. They could not touch her or Rosie. As she came to the door, a figure appeared before her. The woman was dressed in black. Her face looked like fruit rotting from the inside and Bella was sure it reflected the woman’s heart.
Boldly, Bella meet the ghost’s eyes and raised her chin. Then reaching forward, turned the door handle and walked out of the room, allowing the door the slam behind her. Heart pounding and trembling, she stepped forward and into Leo’s waiting arms.
“You were magnificent!”
Leo sighed with relief when Bella collapsed into his arms. He almost missed how Rosie pulled away from him in fright. It caused him to loosen his hold earlier than he would have liked. He had watched through the mirror the entire scene, heard every word, saw every broken glass. It took all his restraint to not storm into the room to defend his ladies.
Collecting herself, Bella stood straighter and put Rosie on her feet. “Your Grace, Lady Rosalyn would enjoy a visit with you, if you would suggest a room?”
“Certainly,” he said after a civil bow to the child. “I suggest the library.”
They walked in silence and he did not miss Rosie’s reticence. She tightly gripped Bella’s hand. When they reached the library, he asked the ladies to be seated. “I brought out some of my favorite books when I was a child. I didn’t know what you liked,” he told Rosie. “I will read anything you choose.”
Obviously tempted, she released Bella’s hand to look through the covers. Selecting one with a princess in a tower, she nearly tossed the book at him and rushed back to Bella’s side. He supposed it was an improvement from being kicked at. Overall, not a bad reaction for a man who looked as beastly as he.
Bella smiled encouragingly at him, and he was lost. Leo read and as he did so, he saw Bella soften. She nearly transformed and looked at him in interest instead of disgust. “What is it poppet?” He asked when he was finished.
“What did you do to your teeth?”
Leo briefly covered his mouth. For years now, what he saw in the mirror affected his sensibilities even if he knew others still saw him as a man. “What do you mean?”
“Your fangs are gone. And your scars aren’t big and angry anymore.”
“We all change,” Bella said sweetly.
“You look nicer since meeting Miss Beauley,” Rosie said matter-of-factly.
“I am very grateful to have met Miss Beauley. Now, do you think I shall become too beautiful?” he teased and felt his heart lift when she giggled.
“Your Grace is very silly,” Bella said but beamed.
“Have you changed, Rosie? You no longer scream when you see me.”
“Do I look different too?”
Bella cleared her throat. “Lady Rosalyn spoke of asking to see your magic mirror.”
“May I see your mirror…” Rosie trailed off and Leo awkwardly realized this was his first real conversation with the child who clearly had no idea how to address him. He really had been quite cruel and insensitive to her feelings. Bella looked at him anxiously.
“What kind of Papa would I be if I refused such a kind request?”
Bella smiled so widely, Leo felt like the sun had suddenly came burst into the room. Rosie looked relieved.
“You must sit here,” he said and patted the seat next to him.
He felt a twinge of guilt. With any luck, Celia would be banished forever from influencing Rosie again but in other ways nothing had changed. Leo still accepted his imminent demise. It was hardly fair to finally claim parentage just to die weeks later. By the same token, she deserved at least one loving parent at some time in her life. He could not forget, however, his plans involving Morgan.
Gently, Leo pulled the mirror from his pocket and learned close to Rosie, curious to see what she would see. “Look, Papa! Your face is almost all better!” she cried.
To Leo’s amazement, he saw it as well. He ran a hand over his jaw, stretched up past his cheeks and along one temple. His skin looked—and felt—flawless. “What else do you see?”
“I’m happy!” she cried gaily. “I see my teeth when I smile!”
Again, Leo was ashamed to admit he did not know Rosie’s usual smile, but assumed she, like him, usually had a different reflection in a mirror before.
The clock struck three and Bella stood. “Rosie, it is time for us to return to the nursery for our biscuits. His Grace is expecting visitors this afternoon and if you are good for Miss Jenny and Miss Maria, perhaps you can see them before bed.”
Rosie happily agreed. Just before jumping down from the sofa, she gave Leo a kiss on the cheek. If Leo had not thought it before, he was certain now. His heart had been made of ice, but a large chunk just thawed off.
Like the ladies, he went upstairs to change. An hour later, he awaited his guests in the downstairs drawing room. Bella arrived moments later looking refreshed and as pretty as ever. If he was not destined to die on Rosie’s sixth birthday, his impending plans for Bella would surely kill him anyway. They chatted and focused on small talk. Neither mentioned Celia by unspoken agreement, they would not mention her while guests were in the Castle.
An hour later, his heir, Lord Morgan, and his sister arrived. Morgan was in his mid-thirties, tall and athletic with just a touch of grey around the temples. He seemed everything gentlemanly and proper. As a young man, Leo had watched that sort of personality from a distance with loathing. Flattery and wit did not come easily to Leo. He had never mastered the art of putting others at ease, he often felt so uncomfortable himself. Today, he told himself Bella deserved nothing less.
Morgan’s sister, Mrs. Alice Hammond, was the older of the two siblings. She paid no special attention to Leo and with the age difference, he grew ashamed of his earlier prejudice. Mrs. Hammond was restrained but friendly.
“You must be tired after your journey,” Leo said after the usual topics of small talk were exhausted. “Dinner will be served at six. If you would like to refresh yourselves before then, please allow Miss Beauley to show you to your rooms.”
His guests agreed and as they were leaving, he called out with a seemingly impromptu request that Morgan join him for drinks in his study before dinner in three quarters of an hour. The gentleman agreed and Bella performed her role as mistress perfectly.
At the appointed time, Morgan returned and Leo waged into his plans. After asking questions to learn the man was financially solvent and upstanding, if relatively boring, he admitted the truth.
“I confess I was happy to hear that your father had already passed and you are the heir.”
“You must be thinking of marriage soon.”
Morgan took a sip of his port. “Few ladies seem interested in an aging baron.”
“The right sort of lady would not mind,” Leo said while thinking of Bella’s kind heart. “I will cut to the chase. I have an illness and am assured I shall not live many weeks hence.”
His guest’s face paled. “Is it certain?”
“As certain as we can be. You will be the Fourth Duke of Erroll by the end of the year.”
“I am sorry to hear it,” Morgan said and he seemed genuine in his feelings. Leo cursed him for being so perfect.
“You must know that only the title goes to you. I have made arrangements, however, for a large piece my personal estate to go a you on a few conditions.”
“That is unnecessary…”
Leo interrupted. “Hear my conditions before you accept or refuse.” He waited for Morgan’s agreement. When it was gained, he continued. “I will choose your bride and you will be guardian to Lady Rosalyn. Half my fortune and the estates will go to you but you must never allow Lady Rosalyn to return to the Castle.”
Morgan’s eyes grew round with wonder and then he crossed his legs and assumed a business-like mien. “It is an excellent offer but I would be a fool to accept unless I knew the value of what you’re talking about.”
“Your share is valued at three million pounds and the annual income would be ten thousand pounds. My solicitor has already sent documents to yours. You should receive confirmation of the legitimacy of my claim in a few days.”
“And the bride?” Morgan appeared disinterested but Leo knew the man would not turn down such a sum.
“Miss Arabella Beauley.”
Morgan suddenly sat up erect. “The governess? I can hardly make a servant my duchess!”
Leo leaned forward. “For three million pounds you can. She is the daughter of a Scottish baron. Beautiful, collected, calm—”
“A favorite of yours, then? I will not suffer to raise another man’s child. Marry her yourself or pay her off.”
Annoyed at the assumption, Leo feigned indifference and shrugged. “Are you certain you wish to risk that? I could legitimize a male heir.”
Morgan furrowed his brow. Clearly he had not considered that before. There would be time later to set the record straight. For now, Leo just needed the man’s agreement.
“Very well,” Morgan said.
“And you shall court her properly.”
“Of course,” Morgan said.
“We are hosting a small ball next week. It is the first time the Castle has hosted one in half a decade. We will introduce you as betrothed. You will wed in three weeks, before my passing.”
“Is that all?” Morgan stood and sneered, revealing his true personality after all.
“I have nothing else to say to you. You are dismissed.”
After the man left, Leo wondered why it felt like he had just made a bargain with the devil.
The next morning, Leo came down late to breakfast. Nor did he smile at Bella. He greeted her with civility, but that was all.
“Leo, when had you wanted to investigate the cave? Lady Rosalyn seems to only handle lessons until noon.”
“After noon, then,” he said and focused on his meal.
Bella hurried to finish her meal and then left. What had changed in him? But then, he was rude when they first met as well. It could very well be that yesterday was out of the ordinary for him.
It could also be that he was tired of her after spending much of yesterday and last night with her. When she awoke in her bed, she knew he must have assisted in her getting there. Bella blushed scarlet at the thought of Leo holding her in his strong arms.
Bella moved lessons with Rosie to the Kitchen. She thought perhaps with all the other distractions, at least Rosie would not fixate so much on the outdoors. Additionally, Bella could use small treats to motivate the child.
“Impressive, Lady Rosalyn! You know your letters very well!” Bella cheered her young charge on.
The child beamed with the praise. “Now, it is time to learn to write them. This is A,” Bella said as she wrote out the letter. Then she made an outline of the letter. “It’s your turn! Can you trace over the dots?”
Rosie grinned with triumph when she completed the task. Bella continued the lesson for a few more letters before changing to numbers. They then ate lunch.
“Go on and rest now, dear,” Bella told Rosie afterwards.
“Can you tell me a story?”
Bella glanced at the clock. Surely, Leo would understand if they met a few minutes late.
“Yes, but let us go to your room.”
“No! Here!” Rosie then crawled into Bella’s lap so she could not get up.
Bella furrowed her brow and exchanged glances with Jenny and Maria.
“Tell me a story about a princess,” Rosie said.
“Lady Rosalyn, we must always use our manners.”
“Can you please tell me a story about a princess?”
“Yes, of course. Anything else?”
Rosie nodded her head and dropped her voice. “She is an orphan.”
Bella gulped and looked at the maids again. “Very well.”
“And the ending must be happy,” she said and wiggled into a more comfortable position.
Bella smiled sadly at the young girl. What would be her happy ending? Suppressing her concern, she told a story of a princess locked in a castle. A dragon had captured her and received ransom several times. Finally, a prince charged the castle and defeated the dragon.
When Bella looked down, Rosie had fallen asleep.
“How did you think of such things?” Jenny asked her.
“Growing up, I read everything I could. Before that, my mother made up stories for me.”
“It’s sad the miss don’t have a mother,” Maria said.
Jenny shook her head. “Got too much of a mother if you ask me.”
“That ain’t a mother,” Maria replied but did not say more. Bella understood what she meant, however.
“Too high born to make a difference, I reckon. No offense to you, Miss Beauley.”
“You are likely correct, Jenny,” Bella said. “My mother was not a peer but unusual in her rank for overseeing so much of her children.”
“Were you very close to her?” Jenny asked and leaned in close.
“I was,” Bella answered softly. “Not a day goes by that I do not miss her.”
“And the rest of your family?” Maria copied Jenny’s movements. “I’m sure they are missing you.”
Bella smiled. “I do not know. My sisters might not wish me back yet; I was quite the task master for them. I do miss them, and my father and brother,” she said.
Speaking of them pained her. She knew, though, that the pain would lessen in time. Additionally, Leo would probably let her check on them often.
The clock chimed the half hour. “Here, I’ll take her up to bed,” Jenny said. “I’ll have a footman carry her up all those stairs. You enjoy your afternoon.”
Bella smiled her thanks and contained a twinge of sadness as her arms were emptied of Rosie. The poor girl was so desperate for love and happiness. And now that Bella had known the love of a child, how could she let her go? All in all, she was pleased with Rosie’s progress for the day. She would be happier still if she could find a way to withdraw Celia’s hold on her.
Rosie rushed to the front hall. Leo stood pacing. “Miss Beauley,” he said coldly while extending her outerwear.
“I am sorry, Your Grace. Lady Rosalyn wanted to hear a story before her nap and then fell asleep.”
“Hmph,” was all he said, but he did offer his arm.
She declined. If he could not keep a civil tongue, he did not need to imitate other civil behaviors. She loathed a fickle attitude. They walked the path in silence until they reached the lake.
“We’re close now.”
Bella lead Leo up the incline to the cave entrance, and then he lit the lamp. “Wait here.”
“I’m going with you,” she said and stepped behind him.
He let out something like a growl and Bella rolled her eyes. She had seen too gentle of a side of him now to be intimidated by his foul mood. She did not like it but neither did she take take it too seriously.
They walked forward, side by side. As the cave grew darker, Bella stumbled over a rock, and Leo caught her around the waist. He still did not speak, but he held her hand in his. Bella looked away to hide her blush, although it was likely too dark to see. After several more feet, Leo halted and held out the lantern.
“There,” he said and pointed. “Does it seem darker over there?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“I think there might be a recess.”
“I followed the water, so I would not have noticed it yesterday.”
“Come,” Leo said and tugged on her hand.
Crossing the stream, they walked on until they reached a crooked stone wall. Leo ran his hands along it while Bella held the lamp. Finally, he found an engraving. Bringing the light in close revealed the Sundridge seal and below it, a small grip to pull.
“Stand back,” he ordered.
“I still worry…” Bella pleaded.
“I said back!”
The sharpness in his tone caused her to jump backwards. He cast a look over his shoulder to see that she obeyed, and his shoulders slumped.
“Forgive me,” he said lowly. “I’m a beast, as I’ve said before. You deserve better. I just…I don’t know if I can protect you from what’s inside.”
Bella took a tentative step forward. He lashed out due to fear. Quite understandable, really. “I am not asking you to protect me, but to let me be a companion.”
Leo shook his head. “It is my curse, and she was my wife. I will not allow her to harm you.”
“But she seems to have no interest in me.”
Leo hung his head and took a deep breath. Then he released the grip and walked to Bella’s side. “Together?” he asked.
She still would have rather gone alone than risk him, but she appreciated the compromise. “Together,” she said.
In unison, they returned to the grip and Leo pulled on it. A thud reverberated through the ground and then a part of the wall gave way revealing a lair. It was full of herbs, bottles of potions, and books Bella assumed contained spells. She pulled one off a shelf. “In the seventh year of the reign of James I and VI…”
“My ancestors were not Catholics. They were witches!”
“Perhaps…” Bella said, and Leo shuddered. He looked pale and barely breathed. “Are you well, Leo?”
“My father acted as though the family legacy was without spot or blemish! He beat me for every action and yet…this,” he waved his hand around the room, “is what my family is made of!”
“You may still be proud of your family,” Bella cried. “If there is bad, then there must be good. Perhaps it was not the magic that corrupted Celia but rather that she corrupted the powers.”
“What’s this?” She pointed to another crest.
“I see no grips.” Leo pressed on it, and the bookcase swung open. “It was not the library we saw! Should we follow?”
“Together,” Bella agreed.
The passageway grew narrow and seemed to continue forever. At last, it widened to another room with stairs. Following them, they reached a dead end. They looked for another symbol or crest.
“Here!” Bella said when she found it. Pressing on it opened to a large sitting room covered in sheets to protect the furniture from dust.
“Celia’s drawing room,” Leo said through gritted teeth.
“We should go the other way,” Bella said. “I want to retrieve the books anyway.”
Leo mutely nodded his head and remained silent the way back to the lair. Gathering up the books in a satchel she had brought, she followed Leo back to the cave. “Something worries you?”
“I had thought Celia would defend her secrets better.”
After passing through the exit to the lair, Leo pulled on the grip’s handles again. Another loud thud shut the door, and they resumed their exit. After a few steps, their feet touched the water.
“Leo, I do not recall the water being this close to the secret entrance before.”
“We should run,” he said. Grabbing her hand, they sprinted through water that grew ever higher. Previously the water had been only ankle deep but now came to Bella’s knees and continued to rise. She held the bag above her head. The awkwardness slowed her progression.
“What are you doing?” Leo shouted over the sound of pouring water.
“I am keeping the books dry!”
“Hang the books!”
“No, they may have the answer on how to end the curse.”
“There is no ending the curse, Bella. Here, give them to me. You run as fast as you can!”
Reluctantly, she gave the bag to Leo and slogged through the water. Reaching the exit, it came to her chest, and she swam to shore. The once quiet stream had become a rushing river. It seemed impossible to save the books. Even worse, Leo ought to have been right behind her. At the rate the water rose, it would very well be above his head by now and yet Bella did not see him. Just when she resolved to leap into the water and find him, she saw a flash of color.
Leo swam with one arm and held the books on his head with the other.
“What are you doing?” She shouted to him.
“Saving your blasted books!”
Bella could not be certain, but she imagined he smiled. “Hang the books!”
Still, he pressed on and made his way to shore. “Madam,” he said when he got near enough. Bella took the satchel and plopped it on the ground. Leo climbed to the land, breathing hard.
“I can’t believe you did that!” Bella said.
Leo smiled slightly. “All was well until I slipped on a rock. I think it was a fool’s errand, but I decided you must be right. Whether I like it or not, whether good or bad, this is part of my family’s legacy and worth saving. It should not be locked away in secret but instead put on display with the other family books. I know you could not bear to see a book destroyed.”
“How do you know me so well?” Bella marveled.
Leo shrugged his shoulders. Then he looked into her eyes and his deep, intent gaze held her captive. She shivered.
“You’re cold,” he said.
Taking off his coat, which did little in the way of warming as it was soaking wet, he draped it over her. She shrunk beneath the massive piece of fabric. Even more astonishing was the way his linen shirt clung to his skin. If it weren’t for his waist coat, she could have clearly made out the muscles of his torso the way she saw his well-defined arms.
“Come,” he said and nudged her along with a hand at the small of her back while he carried the dry satchel in the other.
Leo looked at Bella as she played the pianoforte after their dinner. They were both tired from the events of the day. He wondered if he did not have more gray hair. Seeing Bella in danger, again, and because of him, again, would have taken years off his life if he wasn’t already doomed to die.
As he had expected, the reply from his heir arrived by express this afternoon. The gentleman was a few years older than Leo and had just inherited a barony. He was still unwed, Leo had no doubt because the man was not ignorant of his status as a potential duke. If Leo acknowledged him as his heir, then Lord Morgan would be more desirable on the marriage mart. Morgan requested to bring his widowed sister. Leo suspected a plan to match make but believed Bella could use female companionship, so he agreed. The brother and sister would be arriving the following day as they only lived thirty miles away.
Leo applauded as Bella finished the piece. “Very beautiful. You will make a superb hostess when the guests come.”
Bella flushed and leafed through more music. Leo began to understand it was her way of hiding nervousness. “When shall they arrive?”
“Lord Morgan replied to my letter by express. He and his sister will reach the Castle by dinner time tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Leo thought Bella whispered, and he entirely agreed with the sentiment.
“Surely it is best for Rosie to meet him as soon as possible. Today’s lesson seemed to go better.”
Leo had watched through the mirror periodically in the day. The scene at lunch particularly touched him. He had seldom seen Rosie so…child-like and vulnerable. As an infant, he was too prejudiced against her and healing from wounds of the fire to pay her any attention. By the time she could walk and talk, she acted out every time they met. Seeing her curled up on Bella’s lap affected him all the more. Bella and Rosie deserved to be happy…and that meant a life without him.
“Thank you,” Bella said. “It did. I think keeping her stimulated and occupied helped.” She looked down at her hands, a sign of hesitation. “I began looking through one of the magic books.”
“I am unsurprised,” Leo said before sipping coffee.
Bella smiled. “There are enchantments of protection we could try.”
Fear seized Leo’s heart. Celia had found magic, and it was terrible. “How can you be certain anything in that chamber was good?”
Flexing her fingers over the pianoforte, Bella chewed her lip. “Not all of the books were for adults.”
“There were primers for children?” Leo could scarcely conceive the idea.
“Why not? If the children knew their parents were magical practitioners, they might as well learn the rules early.”
Leo snorted and folded his arms on his chest.
“The primers clearly indicated magic should be used for good, to protect the innocent not for revenge, not for cruelty or punishment. Celia corrupted the magic she learned.”
“You will not teach Rosie,” Leo said harshly.
Bella drew back. “I had not thought about it! I only wished to explain that the information in the books was intended for good.”
“Books can have intent?”
“Of course! Some tell of far away places or lives to make one forget about their current situation. Some tell of glorious battles meant to inspire patriotism. Some tell lessons of morality, and so on.”
Leo nodded his head. Explained that way, it made sense to him. “These enchantments?”
“They only work in small areas. Perhaps we could designate one room and attempt it there. Rosie might have lessons there and be free of Celia. And…”
Bella glanced at her fingers again. “If you have an idea, I will listen.”
“What if Celia’s curse is similar? What if it only works in small areas, like the nursery and her chambers. You have never had anything happen in the general rooms of the house?”
“No…” Leo considered. For years he had been too angry at his circumstances to consider the logic of such exclusions.
“It’s possible Rosie may even be able to be in the same room as you without a reaction,” she suggested.
Uncertain what to say to that possibility, Leo remained silent.
“You could cease watching in the mirror and really see her. I know how much you care for her.”
Did he? For most of his life, he had sealed away emotions. Bella knocked them down nearly instantly but Rosie had a much more complicated history and relationship with him. He had thought he acted out of moral correctness than any genuine feeling. The image of Rosie seated on Bella’s lap and hugging her entered Leo’s mind.
“That would be nice. Very nice,” Leo said and most astonishing of all, he truly meant it.
“Lady Rosalyn, come away from there,” Bella pleaded with her young charge.
They were attempting lessons in the music room. Bella had thought if she taught with songs, it might occupy Rosie’s attention better. Alas, the music room also had several large windows. Still, Bella could see that Rosie desired to please the living adults in her life, she simply lacked much strength to withstand impulsive proddings from her mother. What Bella needed, was some way to minimize Celia’s influence on Rosie.
After a morning of difficult studies, Bella dismissed Rosie to her room to eat, rest and play. Bella did as she often did when overwhelmed with ignorance on a subject. She turned to books. Unfortunately, with a library on both floors and no catalog, her endeavor seemed fruitless until an idea struck her.
Timidly, she approached the Duke’s study and knocked.
“Enter,” he called. “Bella, what a surprise,” he said with a smile upon seeing her.
Bella returned it and instantly wished she had not for his only grew wider. Her body reacted foolishly. She was not so young and sheltered as to not recognize the attraction she felt for him. But it was ridiculous, he was a duke, she was his employee. Above all this, he was cursed to die.
“Did you need anything?” Leo asked, pulling Bella from her thoughts.
“I was hoping you could help me find a book.”
“I can try, but the Sundridge libraries are extensive.”
“You said you searched through Celia’s rooms and the only thing out of the ordinary was the mirror.”
“Yes,” Leo drew out the word.
“Did you given any books on the subject?”
“No, I do not know that much would be written and printed on such things given that witchcraft is illegal.”
Bella nodded her head. “But Celia learned somehow.”
“I have never understood that…” he said.
“Could we ask the mirror?”
“I never thought to ask it that. We can try…”
Bella came around to the other side of Leo’s desk so they could look at it together. They leaned in close, his shoulders rubbing against hers. Bella hoped her heartbeat was not as loud as she feared, lest Leo know how his presence affected her.
“Mirror, show us how Celia learned magic,” Leo spoke in a strong, confident tone and Bella held her breath.
Slowly, their images disappeared and instead, they saw the main upstairs library and then a book case swung open revealing a secret passageway.
“Come, let us go now!” Bella grabbed Leo by the hand. She only intended to pull him from his chair, but as they reached the door, he never let go.
“This way,” he said, and they raced to the library.
When they arrived, Bella could not help but gasp. The room stretched farther than any library she had ever seen or imagined.
“Do you like it?” Leo asked.
“Yes!” She cried. “So many books! Who could read them all?”
She felt relief wash over Leo as he still held her hand. Why had he been so anxious for her good opinion?
“I have tried,” he chuckled. “As a young boy, I spent many hours in here alone.”
How sad, Bella thought. They may not have been as rich or ranked so highly, but she never had wanted for company with her siblings and parents. Even if they did not love reading as she did.
“Consider it yours, then. Read as often as you choose,” he said with a smile.
Still, it made Bella sad to consider that their time was limited. “Did you recognize which section to look in?” Bella asked to change the subject.
“No. We’ll have to search the room. We know it cannot be on the North and South walls.” Leo suddenly looked down at their still joined hands and quickly released her. “I suppose it would go faster if we searched on opposite ends and met in the middle.”
“Of course,” Bella said feeling quite the fool for disliking the absence of his hand. She gave Leo a timid smile and then walked to the far end of the room.
Uncertain what she should look for, she at first looked for some kind of hidden mechanism. She studied the lamps attached to the wood of the cases and removed candles with no luck. Then, Bella recalled that there was a book with red binding on the passage way door at eye level. Glancing around the wall, she saw several shelves with red books. Sighing, she pulled one off, then another.
“Any luck?” Leo called from across the room.
Bella continued to pull red books off the shelves. “Not yet. I remembered there was a red—”
“Ahhh!” Bella screamed as she was suddenly falling down a dark tunnel. “Help!”
“Bella!” She heard Leo shout above just before a loud thud sounded above her head.
A second later she landed on a soft cushion, but it was too dark to see. Bella willed her racing heart to calm. Taking deep breaths, she waited and hoped her eyes would adjust to the blackness. After a few minutes, she was able to see only her hand a few inches from her face. Panic threatened to rise in her, but she calmed when she heard the gentle sound of water, like a stream. Where there was water, there must be an exit of some kind.
Still unable to see, Bella shuffled to her feet and groped in the utter blackness. The air was chilly and moist. Beneath her feet, it sounded like rough-hewn stone. After going several feet at a slow pace, the sound of water grew louder.
Carefully, Bella prodded on, noting that she walked through a shallow stream. At last, the light began to trickle in. She walked in the cut stone passage way. It did not appear to be man-made, but rather like a cave. More and more light gradually came, as though she were nearing the exit.
Then, suddenly, there was a blinding glare. After shading her eyes, Bella saw the reflection of the sun on the lake dazzled brighter than a thousand diamonds. It also told Bella her location. She had walked nearly a mile underground. She noticed a path that lead in the direction of the Castle and followed it. When she arrived, the butler greeted her with astonishment.
“Miss Beauley! When did you leave?”
Uncertain what to explain, she fabricated a half-truth. “Oh…I went out through the kitchen.”
The servant raised an eyebrow and then narrowed his eyes on her soaked hem, but said nothing. Head held high, she made her way to the library and found it empty. Where had Leo gone?
She decided to change her clothes and was turning toward the nursery wing when she heard his voice booming down the hall from his chambers.
“FIND HER! Tear the house apart if you must!” It must lead somewhere; it must come out somewhere. Hire men from the village. I cannot lose her! Now go!”
The desperation in his voice struck Bella. She saw Mr. Potter leave in the opposite direction and go down a rear staircase. And tried calling after him but he did not hear.
Tired from the excursion of the day, she walked as swiftly as she could to Leo’s sitting room. Uncertain what to do, she knocked on the door.
“What?” Leo’s rough voice boomed as the door flung open.
“Bella?” Leo rubbed his eyes and then pulled her into the room. “You’re safe! Are you hurt? I would never forgive myself if anything happened…”
He released her from his arms and Bella wanted to whimper at the loss of contact. “I am well.”
Leo looked her up and down before the tension in his shoulders released. Taking her hand, he lead her to the settee. “What happened?”
“There was a trap door,” Bella said.
“Yes, that part I gathered, but I do not know what the trigger was. I could not get it to reopen.”
“I do not know either. I landed on a cushion of some kind and walked some distance in a dark cave that was under the house.”
“A cave?” Leo stood and ran a hand through his hair. “Where did it exit at?”
“By the lake on the East. I passed it on my journey here, so I recognized where I was.”
“I never knew we had a secret passage way. I can only assume it was from hundreds of years ago when the Sundridge Earls did not convert to Anglicanism and had to hide their visiting priests.”
Bella thought on that for a moment. “I could not see much, but I feel as though it was used more recently than that. Certainly whatever I landed on was not two hundred years old.”
“No, I suppose it would not have been.”
“Additionally, we asked the mirror how Celia learned magic and were shown a different sort of passage.”
“You are correct. There must be more under there and another route in and out of the house. Tomorrow, Potter and I will investigate it with lamps.”
“Leo…” Bella trailed off and looked at her hands uncertain how to continue.
“Yes?” He sat beside her and gently raised her chin. The expression in his hazel eyes made her stomach flutter. It plummeted to the ground when he removed his hand.
“Are you certain it is safe for you to go? Celia seems fixated on you. She and Rosie both react strongly when you are in the nursery. Have you had similar problems when you approached her quarters?”
Leo nodded his head. “Yes, but I cannot ask you to go. Whatever there is to find is related to Celia’s use of powers, and I doubt it will welcome an intrusion from anyone.”
“Perhaps, but if she knew you planned to send her away and developed this long plot against you, then she would certainly protect her secrets from you as well.”
“It is my burden to bear,” he frowned. “Today you might have been hurt or worse. I will not put you through that again.”
Leo stood again, but Bella pulled on his arm before he could walk away. “Please, allow me to do this for you and Rosie. You bear too much alone. Let me assist you.”
He searched her eyes for a long time. She held his gaze and lifted her chin. Finally, he nodded his head. “We will go together, then.”
Bella’s stomach flipped again. For so long she had borne the burdens of her family alone. Having a partner in her newest trial filled her with wonder and gratitude. A knock sounded on the door.
Mrs. Potter came bearing tea and a light dinner. “I hope you do not mind. When Jeeves said Miss Beauley had returned from a long walk I believed she might be too tired to dine downstairs and said I would bring her a tray.”
Bella blushed. She should not be alone with the master and in his private sitting room of all things! “Thank you, Mrs. Potter. I should go.”
“You are my guest this evening, Miss Beauley,” Leo said. The tone of his voice brooked no opposition.
“But Maria and Jenny? What will they think?”
Mrs. Potter began arranging things on a table. “They were told you went directly to bed and would never disturb you in any case. Things are unusual enough, Miss Beauley. No one is going to look askance at you for befriending the master. I told you before, a governess’ position is different.”
“Is that settled?” Leo looked at her for an answer and Bella appreciated the softening of his attitude.
“I suppose so. Thank you,” she returned to her seat.
“That will be all,” Leo said to the housekeeper then sat next to her on the settee. “It is simple fair. I hope you like some of it.”
Bella smiled. “Simple is what I am used to. At home, I helped in the kitchen for the last several years. I am no French trained chef!”
“You worked in the kitchen?”
Bella blushed. “I was happy to be of use to my family after Mother died. All we had left was each other.”
“Tell me about her,” Leo asked and began filling his plate.
Over the next hour, Bella talked about her gentle, loving mother. She directed each of her children with care, knew exactly how to soothe each wound, each ruffled feeling, every anxiety. The ache Bella felt in her heart for her mother softened, however, at sharing fond memories. She had not allowed herself that kind of freedom from grief.
Leo, in turn, shared about his parents. Bella felt he withheld his true feelings about the matter. He explained it all with detached coolness. Yet, anyone with eyes could see how it had affected him. His father abused him and his mother. Leo’s mother hated his existence. Was it any wonder Leo lashed out when afraid and kept everyone at arm’s length. And now he bore a curse? How could he believe himself unlovable? It was not his fault his parents could not love an innocent child.
Changing the subject, Leo invited her to read. “I do not have a pianoforte in here, but I think you might be interested in a book or two.” He grinned as he lead her to the book cases to select a volume.
“The Tempest is my favorite,” she said. “Will you read it?”
Leo hesitated and then obliged. They sat on the settee, and it struck Bella what a cozy scene it made. Certainly, not every night would be like this, and far too soon, Leo would be gone from this world forever. So, just once, Bella told herself to enjoy it. As the sun set, she drifted to sleep hearing Leo’s strong voice read over the passages of the Bard telling about a woman’s love for both her father and husband.
Leo looked up from the volume he had been reading for some time without remark or response from Bella. She had the adorable habit of murmuring her favorite lines along with his reading. He was unsurprised to see she had fallen asleep after the exhausting day she had and yet marveled at it all the same. If she had been growing tired, she ought to have asked to excuse herself. No one before had ever desired his company when inconvenient for them. And yet, she was his employee, the governess to the child he was raising. She had hesitated earlier on dining with him. Likely, she only stayed because she thought it required. Sighing at the truth, he attempted to wake his companion.
“Bella,” he said gently. “Bella, you fell asleep. It is time for you to return to your room.”
She did not stir, and Leo put aside the book. Touching her arm, he gently tapped it with no success. Recalling how little sleep she got the evening before, he assumed she was too exhausted to wake. Resolving to carry her to her room, Leo scooped Bella into his arms, Leo froze when her head nestled into his chest, over his heart. She was so sweet. So pure. Beautiful inside and out, just as the mirror reflected. For a moment, regret and bitterness filled him. If life had been different might he have met her earlier? Might he have married her instead of Celia?
As he walked past the nursery door, he held his breath. Bella had been correct earlier. Celia’s ghostly antics were very sensitive to his presence. With any luck, he would not stir such a problem now. For the last four years, any thought of Celia brought with it recrimination. This time, he felt only concern for Rosie and Bella. Accepting that Celia’s madness had nothing to do with him freed him, and yet living without the crushing weight of that oppression felt surreal. Still, other haunts from his past remained. Celia may have consulted magic and haunted the Castle, but it did not change that he was unlovable from birth. And why wouldn’t he be? He had spent his entire life worried only about himself.
Laying Arabella in her bed, he slipped off her shoes and brought the blanket around her. He hoped she would rest comfortably in her gown. He had noticed the mud on the bottom of her hem dried. What would he have done if she came to harm today?
Exiting quietly, he returned to his chamber. Potter appeared as if by magic, as usual. After making arrangements to explore the cave in the morning and readying for bed, Leo hoped to calm his disorderly mind. Always, before sleeping, he would check on Rosie.
“Show me,” he told the mirror.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Rosie sleeping peacefully in her bed. Then, his breath caught when another image emerged. Bella asleep, just as he left her.
He had suspected it, and a rational part of him thought he ought to hate her for it, but who could hate such a beautiful, selfless creature? One could not help but love her. In the quiet of his room, relatively assured of peace from Celia, he whispered what he had not felt safe to say so close to the nursery. “Sleep well, my beauty.”