While her father was away, Bella looked over the mail. It was unsurprised to have a letter from George saying again he would not be returning home and intended to leave the country. He thought Italy might be suitable. She never touched her father’s business mail and his male friends wrote infrequently. Other than a few distant female relatives, there was little correspondence for Lord Beauley. However, even if there had been an excessive amount, surely the seal of a duke would stand out.
Bella’s hands itched to open the letter. Additionally, she worried why the Duke would write her father when even now he should be at the peer’s estate. Had her father met harm? Bella shook her head to dispel the gloomy thoughts. It was far more likely the Duke was away from the estate. Dukes always had several homes and surely many friends to visit. News of her father’s arrival must have reached him, or he wrote to her father to collect or pardon George’s debt.
Curiosity would have to wait; meals did not cook themselves in addition to the dozens of other daily chores. When not cooking, cleaning or mending, Bella’s days were filled with amusing her sisters. At the end of each night, she returned to her room bone weary and exhausted. While her sisters spent hours at their toilette each day, Arabella wore a simple hairstyle and practical clothing. Brushing out her hair she would examine her dull, thin features. Her sisters glowed with youth and vibrancy in a way that Bella had not even when she was their age. Their forms were already more rounded than hers, and they moved gracefully while Bella still felt gangly and awkward when not being useful. Her mother had been a great beauty, but Bella could never measure up to her in looks, or any other way she feared.
Escaping such unhappy thoughts, Bella often read by candlelight until she fell asleep from the work of her day. The routine continued daily until, at last, her father returned earlier than expected but with gifts for them all. Jewelry and gowns for her sisters and rose water for her. “It will last longer than a rose would,” he had said.
Lord Beauley appeared agitated when questioned about his visit and he immediately changed the subject. After four attempts to garner information from him, Bella, at last, gave up. She had forgotten about the letter from the Duke entirely until she was summoned to the library by her father several days after his return.
“Arabella, I have received a letter from the Duke of Erroll,” Lord Beauley said when his daughter entered.
“I recall seeing it while you were away. I assumed your visit settled whatever matter he wrote to you about.” Bella busied herself around the room while she spoke. It was probably the harshest rebuke she had ever said to a person, let alone her parent.
“Actually, this was sent after my departure.”
Bella mutely nodded her head. Mail coaches always traveled faster than private ones. Additionally, correspondence from a duke would be taken greater care. She said nothing and instead waited for her father to say his piece.
“I’m afraid he’s asked for you to go and live at his estate.”
Bella dropped the empty dish she was holding. It landed with a loud thud on the carpet. “Beg pardon?”
“He needs a governess and is demanding one of my daughters.”
Her father’s words swirled in Bella’s head. She was hardly qualified to be a governess. She had none of the grace and accomplishments a learned lady would need. As a gently born woman, seeking employment never entered her mind.
“Papa,” Bella slowly turned to face her father lest the movement cause her dizzy head to ache. “Why has he selected me?”
Her father had the grace the blush. “He did not specify…”
“Of course, it would be me and not Meg or Kate.” It was always her. “What I mean, is why has he selected our family? Did you not settle matters during your visit?”
“His Grace is not open to discussion.”
“So George’s debt is not settled?” Bella watched as her father avoided meeting her eyes and instead played with papers on his desk. “My going as a governess is in exchange for freeing George from his debt? Then, of course, I will go.”
Her father did not reply. Nothing was said about when she would go or the arrangements. She had learned to not press her father for such details. He needed time to make plans and making him feel inadequate only delayed things further. As always when faced with anxiety, she found cleaning to ease her nerves. Just as she approached the door, holding a serving tray heavy with dishes and rubbish in one hand, a thought struck her.
“How much does George owe?”
“The Duke did not confirm an amount.”
Nodding her head, Bella exited the room. If she were truly fortunate, the Duke would release one hundred pounds every year from George’s debt. But, even at that rate, his daughter would not need a governess for more than a decade. Bella could well imagine that George’s debt was far more than one thousand pounds for both him and her father to be so alarmed by the matter. What would happen to the debt after her student finished her education?
That evening, after supper, while her sisters sang and played at the pianoforte, her father spoke to her.
“Bella, put away your mending and sit with me.”
She obliged but regretted it. She hated to be idle and could listen or converse just as easily while sewing.
“You have always been such a very good girl. You have taken care of us marvelously.”
The praise made Bella uneasy. “It is nothing compared to what mother could have done.”
“Nonsense. I know we never spoke of it, but I wanted you to know before you leave. The war depleted our income. Investments I made turned out badly. Your mother could not have made money appear as if by magic. And she certainly would not have been as useful around the house when we had to let the servants go.”
Bella nodded her head. No, her mother had been a true lady and far too beautiful and refined for such menial work.
Her father took one of her hands in his old, wrinkled one. “You don’t have to go, Bella. I’ve been thinking. Between you and your sisters, there are ten thousand pounds. I will give that to the Duke.”
Bella watched her sisters whisper and giggle over sheet music, and her eyes welled up with tears. “You cannot give my sisters nothing. Who would they marry? I will go. Add my portion to my sisters or hire a true housekeeper to take my place.”
“I cannot ask it of you, my dear,” her father said. The anguish in his tone caused her to look up at him.
“You do not know what he is like. He is a monster.”
“I am sure I will have little to do with him. Tell me about the girl.”
Lord Beauley shook his head, tossing grey curls from side to side. “She was somber and frightened when I met her. She would not say it, but I knew she desired to leave.”
“Not everyone can be as fortunate as me to have such a caring father. And losing her mother must be a terrible burden as well.”
“You know what the gossips say,” her father dropped his voice.
Bella smiled. “And I know it comes from gossips. There are no alternatives. I am grateful he is offering this opportunity. We do not know where George is, and you cannot work. We have nothing of value to sell.”
Her father frowned, deep lines marred his forehead. Having a son, never before had he minded the entail on the estate. It was the usual way of things. Of course, the current circumstances were precisely why the estate had always been entailed. It would prevent the breaking up of the property to cover mismanagement.
“Do not regret the entail,” Bella said. “I shall be satisfied knowing that no matter what you, my sisters, and George will always have a home here.”
“What will we do without you?” her father squeezed her hand.
“The girls are grown. They would be leaving home soon anyway. George seldom visits, and I know I’m little company to you.” Bella attempted to smile, but she had never been away from family before and, in truth, did not know how she would manage without them.
“What are you talking about?” Kate asked, interrupting them.
Lord Beauley released Bella’s hand and stood. “There is something you and Meg must know. Bella has accepted employment with the Duke of Erroll as a governess. She will be leaving in two days’ time.”
“Employment!” Meg exclaimed, and Kate’s jaw dropped open.
“A duke!” One said after the other. They tripped over each other to reach Bella.
“Well, why should Bella get to go?” Meg cried. “Imagine seeing a duke’s house!”
“She won’t be on a holiday. She’s working! Are we losing our money? Heaven help us!” Kate collapsed on a chair and stuffed a treat in her mouth as though their fine things would disappear immediately.
Their father looked helplessly at Bella. Sighing, she stood. “I simply desire some adventure. To meet new people and see new places.”
Lord Beauley immediately looked relieved. Meg and Kate blinked at the ruse for one long moment and then bobbed their heads in unison. “Oh! Of course! You always love to be of use to others,” Kate reasoned.
“And you have no hope of marrying,” Meg added. “How else would you see these things?”
“We’ll help you pack,” Kate said and then poked Meg in the ribs when she did not immediately corroborate.
They then clutched Bella by the arms and led her up to her room. The next two days followed in a blur of excitement and nerves. By the time Bella ascended the Duke’s carriage, she had almost convinced herself that it would all be a grand adventure and had been her idea all along. Only the pained and guilty look haunting her father’s eyes as he waved her off reminded her otherwise.
Leo tapped his fingers on his desk. The governess was to arrive today, and he was on edge. He wondered if this was how all men felt when they knew of their impending demise. His intention, his hope, was that a governess could teach Rosie how to blend in society better. As demented as Celia was, it had always seemed directed at him. And if Rosie were able to leave the castle, it was possible she would be free from her mother’s haunting. The problem being that Rosie leaving would very likely kill him.
Faster than the impending expiration date on Celia’s curse, that is. Would three months be enough time to save Rosie? What chance did she have when there was no one qualified in teaching her?
At last, came a knock on the library door. Leo bade Potter enter. “The carriage has cleared the lodge and will be here within minutes.”
“Excellent. Show Miss Beauley to the green drawing room. Have tea and biscuits waiting.”
A few minutes later he heard the sounds of an arrival at the door and the muffled voice of the butler directing Miss Beauley down the hall. To reassure himself, Leo gazed in the mirror. Rosie played in the nursery with two maids doing her every bidding.
After several minutes, Leo left his study and entered the drawing room. Glancing around, it appeared empty, but a used cup sat neatly on the tea tray. Judging from the display, there was precisely one biscuit missing. Then he heard a shuffling sound coming from behind a sofa. Intrigued, he circled around. The lady knelt on her hands in knees, her head below the couch.
“May I ask what you are doing, Miss Beauley?”
“Oh!” she shrieked and jerked her head up, knocking it on the sofa. She stilled for a moment and then slowly crawled backwards. Chewing her bottom lip, she hastily stood, smoothed her skirt and then curtsied. It was perfectly executed, but her hair now tumbling over her shoulders ruined the effect.
“I assume you can speak?” This was a bloody nightmare. Where was he going to find another governess?
She nodded her head and Leo raised his eyebrow. “Yes!” She cleared her voice. “Pardon me, I mean yes I can speak.”
“Then will you do me the honor of answering my question?”
“Certainly. If you will do me the honor of introducing yourself.” She tugged a stray lock behind her ears.
Annoyed, Leo spoke coldly. “Leonard Sundridge, third Duke of Erroll. Your employer.”
The color drained from the woman’s face, and she visibly gulped. Her eyes turned round.
“Now that you survived your shock,” he said as her face turned pink, “what were you doing…under there?” He motioned to the sofa.
“I dropped some crumbs…” she said meekly.
“Crumbs?” The Beauleys were not as wealthy as he, but had they not had servants? If the woman had not been raised gently, then she would never do for Rosie.
“Yes, I did not wish to leave a mess.”
“Be seated, Miss Beauley,” he commanded, and she swiftly obeyed. “I have a full staff that tends to the house. Your sole duty shall be to look after your charge. If I hire you.”
Her eyes, which had avoided his, suddenly snapped to his. A fire lit behind them. “I did not apply for a position. There is no need to use such a tactic to intimidate me. If you could find another governess, you never would have requested one from my family.”
Leo stood dumbfounded. The cheek! And she had seemed so docile! She wouldn’t be the first deceitful woman he met. Could he trust her with Rosie?
Leo sat in the opposite chair and crossed his legs. “We are both sufficiently low on options, but a duke must always have more than a Scottish miss.”
She flushed. Leo could not be sure whether in embarrassment or anger. Instead, he noted that her eyes seemed greener because of it. A perfect complement to her tresses.
Miss Beauley raised her chin. “Would you like to hear my qualifications?”
“By all means.” Leo picked imaginary lint from his breeches. During the last several minutes he had noted her out of date wardrobe and unfashionable hairstyle–what remained of it that was. She did not move gracefully or speak with the educated tones and rhythms other governesses would use.
“I speak French, Italian and German. I can read all those in addition to Greek and Latin. My needlework may not be the most exquisite, but it is satisfactory. I sing and play pianoforte. I can draw and paint passably. I taught my two younger sisters for the last four years.”
“You’re also incapable of sitting still,” Leo said and jutted his chin at her tapping foot. She immediately ceased the movement.
“I do not like to be idle. Do you care to know more or shall you tell me of your daughter?”
Through the years, that assignation of the relationship between him and Rosie had jarred him less. It was always assumed he was her father, and he had done nothing to say otherwise. Leo doubted even Celia had known for certain which man of her many lovers fathered Rosie. Pushing aside the painful past, he answered with mock interest. “There’s more?”
“I read many things and have educated myself on many different subjects. Few of which will be of use to a six-year-old.”
“Lady Rosalyn is only five.”
Miss Beauley quite proved her point. He said nothing but stood and pulled the bell for a servant. “Mrs. Potter will show you to the nursery and then your rooms. Direct any questions you have to her.”
Then he left the room and returned to his study. He could watch the governess interact with Rosie, but the truth was, he had no other choices short of intentionally arranging someone finding themselves in desperate circumstances. Years ago, he had not been prone to believe in fate. Now, he wondered if George Beauley’s losses at cards the other week was not fate intervening.
Moments later he heard footsteps toward the stairs and Mrs. Potter’s voice. Just before he marked off another day on the calendar, he mused that Miss Beauley had seemed neither grasping, deferent or afraid of him. Born heir to a duke, he had never had such treatment before. What kind of lady was Miss Beauley?