Four Years Later
Bella paced outside her father’s study. Her brother, George, was home from University for the first time in two years. He had chosen to spend his other holidays in London or with friends. His visits home had been infrequent since their mother died four years before.
Bella had spent those years attempting to justify his seeming lack of care for the family. First, George was at Harrow and then Oxford. Both were long distances from the family estate near Dumfries. Papa had been so proud, at first, to send his son to Oxford instead of Edinburgh. Now, she heard raised voices, and it was clear the two men were arguing. Bella pressed her ear against the door.
“Impossible! He’s a mad man!” George shouted then flung the door open. Bella stumbled forward, and he caught her.
“Are you hurt?” he asked as he roughly set her to rights.
“No, of course not.”
George held her eyes, sorrow and despair filling his. “Get out of here, Bella,” he whispered but urgency laced the words. “Run off with your own life. Father will do nothing but make a slave of you.”
“Father needs me,” she said.
George frowned. “Meg and Kate are almost grown.”
Bella shook her head. “Hardly.”
“Meg is the same age you were when Mama died.”
“It’s different,” she said. I’m different, she meant.
“George, what are you and Bella whispering about?” their father gruffly called out.
Panic filled George’s eyes again. “I’m leaving, Bella. I don’t know where or when I’ll see you again. It’s not…not safe for me here.”
“What do you mean? Papa would never hurt you.”
“Son, if you’re not leaving, then get back in here and let us solve your problem like a man.”
George’s shoulders tensed and then fell. He pushed past Bella.
“George?” she called after him. “George!”
He continued to walk on without looking back. He called for his coat and hat. Certain he only meant to ride and calm his nerves, Bella turned toward her father. Shutting the door after entering, she took a deep breath before speaking.
“What was that about?” she asked as she made her way to the tea tray. A cup of tea with two sugars always eased her father’s moods. A cup of tea with two sugars and a splash of port, actually.
“Your brother got himself into trouble,” he said after a long suffering sigh and took the offered cup. “Ah, no one makes me a cup like you do,” he said before raising it to his lips.
“What kind of trouble?”
“I’ve done my best to keep my girls safe from the rogues of the world. But there are men who enjoy the vices in life.”
“Are you saying George is one?” She could scarcely believe it of her brother.
“No, but he’s been taken in by one. Men of wealth and power that see him as an easy mark. English. I should never have sent him to London.”
She held back a retort reminding him he had once been proud to send his son to school with the English. “What can we do?” She moved about the room, picking up tossed aside books and clearing dishes. The housekeeper died shortly after Lady Beauley and had never been replaced. Recently, they let their maid go as well.
“I am going to meet with this bounder, Erroll. There is nothing for you to do but keep after the house and the girls as usual.”
“Is that the best course?” What did her father know about talking to peerage that held men’s debts?
“I may not be a duke but the name Beauley still means something. We can come to a new arrangement.”
“Of course,” Bella helplessly offered.
She was uncertain she agreed. From what she overheard her brother say, the man was a lunatic. She had heard whispers as well. It was rumored he killed his unfaithful wife in a jealous rage and set fire to his house to mask the evidence. Now, he rarely left his home. How George could be in debt to the man, Bella could not conceive.
She said nothing more. She was not good with confrontations. To her, loving a person meant accepting their faults and bearing all things. Indeed, if she saw a flaw in them, it was proof of some wrong feeling in her, not in the other person. It was why she was so helpful in the house. She did not deserve better treatment. Servitude was her penance.
“I will leave in the morning and will not return for over a fortnight,” her father said and held up his cup for a refill.
Silently obeying his request, she nodded her head but chewed her lip. “Will you take Jones with you?”
“I do not think you girls can spare him,” he said.
She nodded her head again. “Dinner is in an hour,” she reminded him.
“I could never forget. Tuesday is your meat pie.”
Bella took the tray of dishes out of the room and descended to the kitchen. She pinned up her red tresses and got to work. They had let their scullery maid and cook’s assistant go last year. How was it that when their mother lived they had more servants? Bella took her frustration out on the dishes she immersed in hot, soapy water. She was clearly a deficient accountant. If only Meg or Kate had shown any interest in doing the ledgers, surely they could do a better job.
It was not that Bella was unintelligent. She had always been clever and particularly liked reading and mathematics. The problem was that her mother had inexplicably been able to stretch her father’s small income miraculously far. Of course, Meg and Kate were also children then and now had adult tastes and sensibilities. It was only natural that outfitting their wardrobe would cost more now. Bella tried not to glance down at her worn dress and the thin apron she wore to protect it from further damage.
“Your pies ready?” Cook asked Bella as she hung up the last tea cup.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said and brought them to the rotund lady. There would be time for thinking later.
By night fall, George had not returned, but it was not unusual for him to spend the evening in the village. Bella was too exhausted from her chores all day to allow herself frivolous musings before falling asleep.
In the morning, Lord Beauley greeted his daughters before leaving for the Duke of Erroll’s estate in Durham. “What shall I bring back my ladies?”
“The finest dress you see!” Kate cried and clapped enthusiastically.
“I want the largest diamond you can find. Look in every shop in every village,” Meg insisted.
“And you, Bella?”
“I only wish for your safe return,” she muttered.
“Come, your sisters have asked for fine things. What do you desire?”
Bella blinked at the question. What she desired was to experience the things she used to read about. Now, she had no time to read or walk in the summer garden. In fact, the summer garden had become overrun with weeds, choking the life out of anything that tried to bloom.
“A rose,” she said. It had been far too long since she had something so simple and pure to look at.
Her sisters laughed at her, and her father tweaked her nose. “A rose for Bella, a diamond for Meg and a gown for Kate.
“Bella does not wish for such things because she is too plain for them. It is why she will be an old maid, and we shall find rich husbands!” Kate crowed.
The words did not hurt Bella. It was all true. She was plain, and they would marry before her. If they found rich husbands that loved them, Bella would be pleased. It is what her sisters deserved and what she hoped for them.
“Well, try not to fall in love while I am gone,” Lord Beauley said. “When you see George remind him our discussion is not finished,” he added to Bella.
“Of course. I love you, Papa,” she hugged him tight before he left. He had rarely gone on journeys since his wife died and never had he gone alone.
“Fear not, Bella. I shall sort out George’s concern,” he promised with a wink then boarded the carriage.
Bella watched him go then returned inside. There was work to be done.
There was a loud clatter in the hall, causing Leo to topple over his ink. The jagged scar across Leo’s face twitched. The sound of running feet and a giggle rushed by next.
Leo stormed to the door and yanked it open. “BE QUIET YOU IMP OR I’LL HAVE YOU LOCKED UP!”
The giggles and movement stopped and sniffling replaced them. Then a whoosh of skirts came by, assuring him that the nanny had at last caught up with her charge.
Returning to his study, Leo pulled the bell cord summoning his housekeeper. The room still had remnants of the fire that nearly destroyed the south wing of the home four years ago. He welcomed the charred reminders of what he really was. A beast.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
Leo did not look up from his writing. “How many times have I told you to hire a competent nanny?”
“I am sorry. Miss Rosie is a very precocious child.”
“And whose fault is that? Who is not teaching her to obey?”
“Sometimes it is not the fault of the ones rearing a child. Some children have a natural disposition and inclination for certain behaviors.”
The old lady did not need to say more. She had argued the same thing about the Duke to his mother.
“What do you suggest then? I must have peace and order.”
“Mere games are not enough to occupy her. She must have a routine and learning to keep her active mind focused. Perhaps we may find a school for her–”
“You know she cannot leave.”
“We could find a governess but…”
“A governess position is different from other servants. They have certain liberties in a home.”
“Done. Place an ad.”
“Beg your pardon, but I have placed several.”
“And no one meets the qualifications?” The scar twitched again, and a headache began to form.
“There have been no applicants,” the lady said without any hesitation. It is what Leo had always liked about Mrs. Potter and her husband–their honesty.
“Then you’ll have to find one another way.”
Leo finally looked up from his work and met the lady’s eyes. “I assume being a governess in a duke’s home—even one rumored to be mad and beastly—is sufficient motivation for some desperate soul out there. I want her to be gently bred, good reputation, and accomplished enough to teach Rosie. If you cannot find anyone who fits that, then make someone desperate enough to take the position.”
Mrs. Potter said nothing but a familiar look of reproach filled her eyes. “Anything else, Your Grace?”
“No. I believe we understand each other. You’re dismissed.”
She shook her head as she walked to the door but Leo knew the lady would obediently see about her tasks. Her husband was Leo’s most trusted servant and would find a way to assist his wife should they find no other woman.
He returned to his work and the blessed peace that his earlier outburst now ensured. An hour later, he heard a guest arrive.
“I’ve come to see the Duke of Erroll,” a thick Scottish accent announced.
“His Grace is not at home,” the butler replied.
“Bullocks! Everyone knows he never leaves. I’ve come to talk to him about the debt my son was swindled out of!”
A deep frown crept across Leo’s face. Travelers often found themselves making use of his estate. On occasion, he sometimes joined gentlemen in games of cards. A few weeks ago, a young man played and lost. Incapable of facing defeat, the gentlemen played match after match with increasingly higher stakes. In the end, he owed Leo ten thousand pounds. Then the coward left in the morning without a word. Any man of honor would pay the debt, and instead, his father was at Leo’s door acting as though his son was abused!
“I say again; he is not home.”
Leo heard heavy footsteps in the hall. “Which door is it? Or is he abed still? Lazy English dukes.”
“Sir!” The Butler cried out as the enraged man flung open the door to Leo’s library.
“I’ll announce myself!” The Scot said. “I’m Lord George Beauley, of Beauley, and I’m here to settle with you!”
Beauley stepped closer, seemingly not caring that there was no response. “Are you deaf and daft? I tell you—” A strangled gasp bit off his words as he came closer. “Good God! You are a monster!”
At last, Leo stood. “And you, sir, are an intruder.”
Beauley stuttered when he saw Leo’s full height. He towered over the other man. “Beg—beg—beg pardon. If it is convenient for you, I would wish to speak with you about my son.”
Beauley did not take his eyes off the jagged scar and angry flesh of Leo’s face. “No,” Leo said.
“Pl—please, Your Grace!”
Ah, so now he finally garnered proper respect from the upstart of a Scottish baron–not even a real peer!
“I am sorry you have come all this way, but I do not negotiate on debts. Your son owes ten thousand pounds and must pay.”
“That would bankrupt us!”
Leo shrugged. “That is not my concern. If he did not have the funds, then he ought not to have played.” Leo paused and gave the man a long look. “Now, you are welcome to tarry here from your journey. Dinner will be served for you and a room prepared, but the discussion is over.”
While he talked, Leo meandered to the fireplace where a pair of dueling pistols was displayed over the top. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Beauley whispered.
“What was that?”
“Yes,” he said stronger.
“Good. Mr. Lam will show you to your chamber,” Leo nodded at the butler. Beauley obediently left, and Leo returned to his work.
With Celia’s final breaths, she assured Leo would find no peace. If he could not find someone to love him before Rosie’s sixth birthday, or if she would ever leave the house, he would die.
At first, Leo refused to accept Celia’s words, but it soon became apparent that Rosie could not exit the house. Her simply getting close to a door brought out anxiety in Leo he never experienced before. Hence her playing in the main hall kept him on edge.
Later, Leo attempted to battle the curse through human means. He would find a lady to court, make her love him and all would be well. But neither was he able to leave the house, and few families accepted his invitations. The ones who brought their daughters could scarcely see past his hideous face. The ones that could, saw only becoming a wealthy duchess. Marriage was not the answer; love was the only thing that would break the curse. And Leo had at least learned that lesson. Marrying without love would not make it bloom into love later.
As it stood now, Leo was down to the final months of his life. Rosalyn’s birthday was fast approaching. If she didn’t run away between his beastly nature and her lack of proper supervision.
Four years ago, Leo had servants search the rubble of Celia’s rooms. They had time to only retrieve items from her dressing table—his great grandmother’s looking glass and diamond ring—before being assaulted by flying objects. In time, Leo discovered the mirror showed the desires of the heart and also reflected a person’s inner character. He kept it with him always. When not displaying images of Rosie, it showed him his true reflection—a giant brute covered in scars, his hands ended in claws, and fangs hung below his mouth. He looked terrifying.
As usual, Leo fell asleep reading over correspondence in his library. He awoke the following morning while it was still dark to voices.
“Good morning, little lady,” Beauley said. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Leo saw Beauley speaking with Rosalyn in the main hall.
“Good morning, sir,” Rosie replied. A growl built in Leo’s chest. Where was her blasted nurse?
“What’s your name?”
“They call me Rosie. Mama says it’s because I’m as pretty as a rose.” Leo grit his teeth. If he didn’t have proof of Celia’s curse on him, he would find it more disturbing that her daughter believed she could communicate with her dead mother. Leo often saw her in the mirror talking to a figure that was not there.
“Does your mama or papa work here?”
Leo could not hear Rosie’s reply. Or perhaps she did not say a thing.
“Oh, I see,” Beauley’s voice turned cold. “Are you happy here?”
Another reply he could not hear.
“Why not walk with me in the garden?”
“I’d like that! They never let me go outside.”
Leo’s feet raced to the door, carrying the mirror with him. The large home meant it took several minutes before he reached the hall.
“I have three very nice grown up daughters at my home. Would you like to meet them? They would love to play with you.”
What was the man thinking? Was he going to abscond with a child. Leo came into the hall just as Beauley raced toward the door with Rosie in tow.
“LET HER GO!” Leo rushed toward the older man and crashed into him. They all fell, Rosie laid strewn on the ground. Leo pinned Beauley beneath him. “I should kill you!”
“No! No! Please no! I wasn’t going to take the girl!”
“I heard you! After enjoying my hospitality, you were going to take her away?”
“Please don’t kill me!”
Breathing heavily, Leo got off the trembling man. After checking to see if Rosie still lived, he turned back to Beauley. “No, I will turn you into the constable. Between this and your debt to me, you ought to have a few years in the workhouse.”
“No! No! Anything but that. I’ve got three girls at home. I just can’t leave them.”
“Return home, make arrangements for them. Then you will come work for me. I hope you understand I am a harsh master.”
“Yes. Yes. I will do that.”
“Now go! And if you do not return, I will find you and your son. None of you will be safe from my wrath.”
Beauley got up and left as swiftly as his trembling legs could carry him.
“Rosie,” Leo said as he crouched next to the little girl. A maid appeared with a basin of water and a towel. “Rosie, wake up.”
Her eyes fluttered open and the moment they met Leo’s she cringed. “No!! I want to go!!” She shouted and kicked at him until he withdrew. She tried to stand, but the maid held her down.
“Take her!” Leo shouted at the gathering group of servants.
“Come, Miss Rosie. It’s not safe for you out there,” one said.
“We have sweets up in your room,” another coaxed.
After being assured that she would not have to see Leo again, the girl willingly went up the stairs. Leo returned to his study. There had been other times when Rosie had nearly left the house, but that was certainly the closest. He needed to find a cure to the curse or accept his fate.
As he picked up the mirror and watched Rosie serve tea to dolls, he acknowledged that it was not just for him he desired to live. Who would care for Rosie? There was not an old acquaintance of his he would trust with her well-being. To make matters even worse, no one else would understand how her mother haunted her and whispered things to her. Rosie would be called mad or possessed. Their fates were bound in this.
Once, when he was young, he dreamed of having a family of his own. He would be the caring father his own had never been. His wife would have been a doting mother, unlike the one who birthed him. They would never speak words in hate or anger. No hands or rods would strike their children. But, naive dreams fell away, and he married Celia.
Now, although he had no blood relationship to Rosalyn and could barely be in the same room as her without the girl striking out, undoubtedly encouraged by her mother, he felt something like affection for her. She did not deserve this world created by him and Celia into which she had been born. She was a helpless innocent, and he did desire to save her even more than he wished to save himself.
From beyond the grave, Celia was able to see many things, but she had never understood his mind or heart. An idea struck him, and he took up his pen.