“I hope you can tell me more about the child,” Arabella said to the Duke’s housekeeper as she was led to the nursery. She preferred conversation to pull her thoughts of the Duke. He had been massive and hulking. A large scar ran across his cheek. She wouldn’t call him handsome, but neither would she describe him as a monster as her brother and father did.
“Lady Rosalyn is very loved by all the staff,” the older lady said far too carefully in Bella’s estimation.
“And by the master?” She had not seen much sign of affection from the gruff peer earlier.
“By all who know her, of course.”
Bella nodded her head. The conversation grew more awkward the more Bella pressed and she chose to remain silent. To say Sundridge Castle was opulent would be like saying Michelangelo dabbled in art. In fact, even the housekeeper’s gown seemed finer than what Bella ordinarily wore.
At the top of the stairs, Bella was directed down a long passage. “The nursery rooms are down here to enjoy the sun in the morning. State rooms face the West. The South end is unused and under repair.”
Tamping down on the curiosity which longed to know how long it had been under repair and why, Bella again meekly nodded her head.
“The North gallery is the Master’s. We’ll let you meet Lady Rosie and after you’re settled in come see me in my sitting room.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Bella was happy for the invitation. There was much about her employment she did not know or understand. She believed the housekeeper was both wise and sensible.
Just before entering the nursery, Mrs. Potter stayed Bella’s arm. “Lady Rosalyn is a special child. She can be…eccentric. How experienced with children are you?”
“I have three younger siblings. I have seen my share of tantrums.”
“No child is like Lady Rosalyn.”
Bella nearly rolled her eyes. Well, daughter to a duke was entitled such privileges, she supposed. Upon entry, the housekeeper spoke to the two maids in the room for a moment before introducing her. One of them brought Lady Rosalyn to her.
“Lady Rosalyn, this is Miss Beauley. She will be your governess.”
Bella bent down and greeted the child who stared vacantly at her in return. A tingle crept up her spine, and she felt as though she was being watched by something unseen besides the six pairs of anxious eyes trained on this all important interaction.
“She may stay,” was all the child said. Then she turned around and went back to her game. The maids smiled nervously at Bella and hurried after their charge.
“Over here is the night nursery,” Mrs. Potter said while walking toward a door. After being lead through the room, another door was pointed out. “That is your chamber. Bed, a sitting room and dressing room.”
“Oh, that is unnecessary,” Bella said.
“Will you spend all of your time with the child?”
Bella blinked. She had not considered it a possibility that she would not, unaccustomed as she was to leisure. She grew more uncomfortable when she learned the two nursery maids shared a much simpler room.
“Tomorrow we can go over the school room and upstairs library.”
“Upstairs? There is more than one?”
“Oh, yes. One per each floor. Though the downstairs one is the largest and duplicate titles appear in each room. Now, your things should be put away, and water has been brought in. If you need assistance, Jenny may help you. Rest if you must, but do not forget to speak with me tonight.”
Bella agreed and thanked her then looked around her new chamber. The bed was more ornate than at her home, the writing desk finer. She attempted to catalog every item to include in letters to her sisters. And she could reassure her father that she would be well taken care of.
After removing the grime of travel, allowing herself a brief nap, and dining in her room, Bella went to the kitchen level to meet with Mrs. Potter.
“Thank you for this meeting,” she told the housekeeper. “I admit to being uncertain what to expect still.”
Mrs. Potter nodded her head. “You will have a half day off twice a week. As the servants have half of Sunday off, it cannot be that day.”
Bella furrowed her brow but nodded her head. Apparently, Lady Rosalyn was not to be left alone with the Duke even for a few hours on a Sunday.
“Lady Rosalyn will eat in the nursery at four. You may eat then or again with the master at six.”
“Eat with the master?” Bella never would have presumed it!
Mrs. Potter shrugged her shoulders. “Did you never have a governess?”
“No. My mother taught us. I was to go to a seminary for one year, but then she fell with child, and I stayed at home. After she had passed, I taught my sisters.”
“How sad,” Mrs. Potter said with a sincere look. “But perhaps good practice for now. As I was saying, you may claim all the normal rights as governess. Do not let it hinder you that there is no mistress of the house. I only wish there might be more females in your station to converse with.”
“Jenny and Maria seem like very fine girls.”
“That they are but you are to teach Lady Rosalyn how to be a duke’s daughter. You can hardly be a bosom friend to the under maid.”
“Oh,” Bella had not thought of it that way.
“Pay has been arranged with your father but you have additional pin money and any expenses you require for teaching to personal items such as gowns or postage will be paid for.” This time, Mrs. Potter held up her hand before Bella could argue. “There is no time to discuss it. It is what is due as a governess in a duke’s home. Now, about Lady Rosalyn.”
Mrs. Potter played with the spoon to her tea. “How much do you know about His Grace?”
“I know nothing. I have unwillingly heard some rumors.”
“I do not intentionally listen to gossip, but one cannot avoid every lady on the street.”
“No, indeed,” Mrs. Potter said with a smile. Then it faded, and she gave Bella an assessing look.
“Lady Erroll died in a fire four years ago while her daughter was not yet two years old. His Grace is not long for this world, and he desires a governess to help ease Lady Rosalyn’s way into Society. The tragedy of her mother’s death has affected her deeply.”
“Is there nothing that can be done? His Grace appeared perfectly healthy when we met!”
Mrs. Potter sadly shook her head. “More will be decided in the coming months about what is best for Lady Rosalyn. It may mean transferring your employment to another, or terminating it in favor of a different situation for her.”
“Of course…” Bella chewed her lip, uncertain if she should ask the question that weighed on her.
“I know of the situation with your brother. Rest assured that should the child be removed from your care, you will still be fully compensated. The contract with your father states you must fulfill service until Lady Rosalyn’s sixth birthday.”
“Thank you,” Bella said. The lady’s ability to anticipate her concerns unnerved her.
“Now, I must give you some rules for Lady Rosalyn.” Mrs. Potter fiddled with the hem of her sleeve. “She must never leave the castle.”
“Of course, I cannot conceive of a reason I would have to leave the premises without the Duke.”
“No. She is not to leave even to visit the garden.”
“No fresh air?” Bella’s throat tightened at the thought.
“It has been ordered by her physician. Like any five-year-old with restrictions, she does not understand her limitations and dislikes them.”
“You mean it is unsafe for her to leave and yet she has attempted it?”
Mrs. Potter nodded her head and looked Bella square in the eye. “It is your duty to keep her in the Castle, occupied and safe. One day, she will be allowed to leave, and she must understand how the outside world works, the social demands.”
“I shall try,” Bella promised.
“You must do more than try. You must do this.”
“Of course! I would never want harm to come to her.”
The housekeeper scribbled a note on a scrap of paper on her desk and then met Bella’s eyes again. “Alert me immediately to any strange or disconcerting behavior.”
“What do you mean?”
“I trust you will know should it happen.” Mrs. Potter stood prompting Bella to do likewise. “Now, you have had a long several days. Rest well and your duties shall begin tomorrow promptly at nine in the morning. Should Lady Rosalyn awake before then, Jenny and Maria will see to her.”
Bella thanked the housekeeper again and made her way back to her chamber. Along the way she allowed herself to reverently trail her fingers over certain sculptures, artifacts, and furniture. Each item told a story of a long, proud legacy. The Beauley estate had many items several generations old, but none so fine or as significant as in Sundridge Castle. She smiled to herself imagining her half day off spent reading in the well-stocked libraries and observing the works in the sculpture and portrait galleries.
Returning to her room, she made quick work of getting ready for bed. Just before climbing between the sheets, she heard a clatter from the night nursery. Rushing in, she found Lady Rosalyn climbed a bookcase in front of a window and knocked items off.
“Lady Rosalyn, it is not safe up there, please come down,” Bella called firmly just as Jenny and Maria walked in.
The child looked back at Arabella with an innocent expression. “But Mother told me to open the window.”
Bella shivered as though the window was already opened and cool air blowing in. In a gentle tone, she said, “You may be a duke’s daughter, but even they are not allowed to lie. It is dishonest to blame your actions on someone else. Do you know what dishonest means?”
Bella watched as the child grew more defiant. “But I’m not lying! Mother told me!”
“Lady Rosalyn,” Bella said gently but firmly, “your mother died several years ago. So did my mother and I miss her too, but I do not create stories about her living. It is unkind to joke about death.”
“Miss Jenny, Miss Maria, tell her! Tell her my Mother is always with me and speaks to me,” Rosie stomped her foot, causing the bookshelf to shake. She immediately stilled and paled.
“Please come down, we can talk about it more from the floor,” Bella prompted.
“I’m scared…” Rosie whispered.
“Here, jump to me,” Bella said and hurried to bookshelf. Rosie leapt to her sanctuary. As she did, the bookcase toppled over with a loud thud. Heart racing, Bella held her young charge.
“Are you hurt?” Rosie shook her head but clung to Bella’s neck. “Here, love, let’s sit.” Bella walked the few feet to Rosie’s bed as the child began to tremble. “Jenny, I think Lady Rosalyn could use a glass of water to help her sleep.”
Bella hoped one of the maids would understand she was asking to give the child a draught. “There, there. Now, you’ll know better than to climb up there again, won’t you?”
Rosie nodded her head again. Then the door flung open, banging against the wall. Bella jumped, and Rosie squeezed her tighter. Jerking her head toward the door, Bella saw the Duke hulking in the doorway.
“Is she well? What happened?”
Leo’s heart pounded as he gripped the door frame. Three pale and terrified female faces watched him, and Rosie buried her head into Miss Beauley’s neck.
“What happened?” He growled out. This was a disaster. If the governess could not keep Rosie safe, then they were both doomed. “Tell me!”
The ladies jumped again but this time not at his voice. The window lock rattled and then burst open. A loud whip of wind sounded outside, gushing into the room and billowing the curtains. Then came the familiar high pitched shriek.
“Celia!” He cried out, and Rosie began to sob loudly.
Another gust of wind tore through the room and swirled around him before leaving through the window again rattling the shutters until they loosened on their hinges. One fell off, shattering on the ground below.
“Celia, that is enough,” he said firmly.
“Go away!” Rosie cried from Miss Beauley’s shoulder, causing Leo to note the governess’ calm demeanor. She calmly unwrapped Rosie and tip toed around the books strewn on the floor. Taking a deep breath, she reached for the window pain.
“That is enough.”
She pulled the window in, although Leo could see that she struggled with effort. In the end, she succeeded causing Jenny and Maria to gasp. Then she smoothed her hands over her robe and turned to face Leo, meeting his eyes directly.
“Would you care to explain to me what is going on?”
Leo took one step forward, but Rosie shouted. “Follow me,” he said then left. He waited in the hall for a few moments and could hear Miss Beauley settling Rosie back in bed. Jenny and Maria worked to clean up the mess and then promised to read to the child to calm her nerves. When Rosie sounded sufficiently calmed, Miss Beauley entered the hall and silently followed Leo as he lead her to his private sitting room. Miss Beauley hesitated before entering.
“I assure you, your reputation is safe with me.” He had little interest in ladies since Celia’s death. None of them could love him, and he had long accepted that he was incapable of loving anyone. As he had no future to concern himself with, marriage for any other aspiration was pointless.
“As you are the only witness, and it is unlikely even a servant will enter your sitting room unannounced, I am certain that is the case,” Miss Beauley said. Her words surprised him. She had just witnessed a supernatural scene and yet her tongue could cut. Or was this an expression of anxiety after what she witnessed?
“Have a seat,” he said and then poured two glasses of wine. “For your nerves.”
Miss Beauley took it without argument. For a few moments, they sat in silence, sipping their wine. Leo believed it might have been the first time in her entire life that she had not minded the silent nothingness. Even still, he guessed her mind was quick and deeply at work. Every two minutes or so she would nervously rub her hands on her skirt and then reach for her glass again. At last, the wine was gone.
Uncertain of her thoughts, or what Mrs. Potter had told the governess, Leo waged forward bluntly. “What do you make of what happened?”
“What do I make of it?” she cried. “I have far more questions than you likely have answers. Therefore, it will be easiest if you simply tell me all you know.”
Leo smirked. No, he would not reveal all to her. His affairs were a private matter, and she did not need to understand most of them. “May I call you by your Christian name? I fear our conversation will be such that formalities should be dropped.”
Her mouth dropped open before she snapped it shut. “Certainly, Your Grace. You may call me Arabella or Bella.”
Leo raised an eyebrow. “You may drop the formal title, Bella.” Her name on his mouth felt like a magical incantation. He smiled. Bella meant beautiful in Italian, and it suited her. Other ladies might have more classical features but what little he knew of Bella’s character already combined with her fresh complexion and simple, artless prettiness made her one of the most beautiful ladies he had seen in a long while.
“Very well…Erroll,” she said.
Leo immediately cringed. He recalled the hateful tone Celia would say it in. “Actually, call me Leo.”
Bella furrowed her brow and chewed her lip, then finally nodded her head in agreement.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Leo summarized the details of his brief and tumultuous marriage. She seemed to accept the scandalous truth well enough. Of course, that was the easy part of the tale.
“Tell me, Bella, have you ever seen or experienced things you could not explain?”
“Nothing except for the incident that just happened, sir.”
“But you’ve heard stories of ghosts and magic?” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
“Of course! Every child knows those stories.”
“They are not stories and certainly not within the Castle. Celia learned powers, dark powers. Her final act was to put a curse on me.”
The confused look on Bella’s face was proof enough of her dubious thoughts.
“I’m dying,” he said bluntly and for the first time ever out loud. Suddenly, he felt a war of emotion battle within him.