Bella’s mouth fell open. The strong, virile Duke before her was dying? “I am sorry to hear that,” she said. It seemed like the inanest thing to say.
“Undoubtedly, you wonder how it can be possible when I appear healthy?” The Duke tapped his heart. “It’s on the inside. My heart is bad. Nothing can end it. The closest I have got is this enchanted mirror.”
Bella doubted his heart was the concern, but rather that he was touched in the head. Leo pulled a small looking glass out of his pocket and held it up for her inspection. “It allows you to see your heart’s desire.”
“I see only myself,” Bella frowned. The image reflected was as pale and thin as ever.
“At first it appears as any mirror would. Concentrate and it will show you your true reflection.”
Bella humored him and tried again then gasped as before her eyes, she bloomed with color and her face rounded. Her plain features transformed. Her brown eyes sparkled with vibrancy and depth. Her red hair darkened to auburn, looking striking with her light complexion. She touched her cheek in disbelief. “I’m…beautiful,” she whispered.
“Perhaps its enchantment only works on me.”
“Why do you think that?” She ripped her gaze away from the mirror.
Leo looked at her in confusion. “You are a beautiful lass, but I see a beast.”
“Come, look.” He motioned for her to come to his side and she leaned close to him. His clean scent filled her nostrils, and her heart pounded. She had never been so close to a gentleman before. “There we are. Beauty and the beast,” he said.
Bella peered closely. She saw the same image reflected earlier, but the man beside her looked just as glorious in the mirror as he did in the flesh. Nothing like a beast. She shook her head. “I do not see it.”
Leo sighed. “No matter. Mirror, show me Rosie.”
Their images dissolved and miraculously, she saw Lady Rosalyn in bed with Jenny in a chair by her side. Bella drew back. “How did it do that?”
“Just as I’ve been telling you. Magic. My wife…she was unhappy. She turned to magic. Celia cursed me to die upon Bella’s sixth birthday.”
“Sir…Leo,” she amended upon his scolding look. “I think perhaps you are over exhausted or ill. Should I call Mrs. Potter for you?”
“You do not believe it? Here,” he held out the mirror. “Ask it to show you your heart’s desire.”
Begrudgingly, Bella obliged. The image transformed to her mother sitting before the fire in the Beauley residence. “How can this be? This is a cruel trick! My mother died four years ago!” Tears pricked Bella’s eyes as she considered seeing her mother again truly was her greatest desire.
“It is not. Ask it to show you another desire.”
Too curious to refuse, Bella asked the mirror again to show her a desire of her heart. A dark room slowly came into focus. Men were gathered around a table with mugs of spirits. Amongst the gruff looking men, Bella recognized her brother with weeks’ worth of whiskers on his face. “George?”
“You worried for your brother,” Leo said with something like wonder in his voice. “Do you believe now?”
Bella mutely nodded her head. How had she fallen into this fantasy world?
“You ought to drink some more wine,” Leo prompted and lead her back to her seat then refiled her glass.
Bella took a sip and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, Leo looked at her in concern. “I should have spared you all of this. It was selfish of me to reveal it this way. Please forgive me.”
Their eyes held for a long minute. The Duke was not as simple as she had imagined. She had believed he was too proud to consider anyone else’s feelings. Since she arrived, he had been discourteous, aloof and even rude. She appreciated how much it must cost him to apologize to her. “Of course.”
Leo nodded his head and silence stretched between them. Now that she understood the conditions he had lived in for the last several years, certain things made sense. His eyes no longer looked as wary. Instead, they appeared…yearning. “Why did you want a governess for Lady Rosalyn? If you are certain you shall die upon her birthday, why not spend your last months in peace instead of a stranger in your house?”
He raked a hand over his face and expelled a deep breath. “I’ve been a fool my whole life, but Rosie deserves better. My wish is that you can soften her enough so she may fit in at a school or wherever her guardian will choose to send her.”
“In the room…” Bella took a deep breath. How did one ask a duke about magical curses and hauntings? Quelling her courage, she tried again. “In the room, Lady Rosalyn said her mother wanted the window open. When the wind swirled us, you called out to your deceased wife, as though she was there.”
“Will it shock you to learn that Celia exists as a ghost and haunts her daughter?”
“But why the window?”
“If Rosie leaves the castle, I will die.”
“How many different ways has she cursed you?” Bella blurted out without thought and then covered her mouth and blushed.
Leo chuckled and then continued until it was a true laugh. After calming, he said, “I believe that is the first time I have found any humor in this situation.”
“I am sorry,” Bella said, ashamed at her lack of manners.
“Never mind,” Leo waved a hand. “It is impossible to know her motives, but I believe her intention all along was to kill me with Rosie leaving the house. Expiring when she turns six was simply her fail safe.”
“Does…does Her Grace often suggest to Rosie she exit the castle?”
“Do not give her that distinction,” Leo said harshly. “She never deserved that title. Yes, and you can imagine a five-year-old child needs little suggestion to wish to see the outside world.”
“Indeed,” Bella said and thought quietly for a moment. “What happens to Lady Rosalyn if she leaves the Castle?”
“At first? Nothing. But she has had no rearing away from her mother’s strange whispers in her ears. She would be locked up at Bedlam’s or worse.”
Bella shuddered to imagine the innocent child put on display and poked by tourists, medicated, tortured, spat on and more. “You do not think she is mad?”
Leo shook his head. “Is it madness when there is an outside influence? It is not Rosie’s mind that is addled.”
Bella nodded and attempted to muffle a yawn.
“Forgive me, you must be exhausted. Allow me,” Leo stood and took her hand. A warm tingle shot up her arm.
Bella hoped to mask her confusion at the sensation even as he moved her hand to his arm and escorted her down the corridor. “Besides the probability of her being hurt falling from the window tonight, this means that Celia has been not caring whether she hurt Rosie all along. What a despicable woman she must have been.”
“I had not even thought of that. I had thought…” Leo rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. “The night of the fire, I had made arrangements to send her away. She had learned of them somehow and was angry that I would separate her from Rosie. I had thought that this was my punishment for attempting that. That her love for Rosie reached that far.”
Leo squeezed Bella’s hand that wrapped around his arm. “All these years and I finally have peace about that. Bless you, Bella,” he said as they reached her door.
“Thank you,” Bella mumbled awkwardly.
“Sleep well,” Leo said and then bowed.
Bella stumbled into her room, feeling as though the whole world had been turned upside down.
After leaving Bella’s side, Leo sat in his sitting room for a long while. When he had decided to hire a governess, he had foolishly not expected Celia to act out. He had thought she would see it as a clear sign of his defeat. The revelation that she had never truly cared about Rosie shook him.
The poor girl had never known a parent’s love. It was a pain he intimately knew. As a child, he had been hated by his mother who had desired a daughter as revenge on her husband. Leo’s father had numerous affairs but never forgot to assert his “rights” on his unwilling duchess. As a young man, Leo had wondered why his mother never carried on with her own life the way his father had. As he grew older, he recognized that her father kept her virtual prisoner in the Castle.
When destiny handed him a wife that had no desire for him, Leo allowed her the space for indiscretions. Deciding to send her away weighed heavily on him. If it had been only the affairs, he would not have done so. But Celia’s behavior had always been dramatic, even more so after Rosie’s birth. She needed care, or else she would hurt herself or another.
Leo shook his head. No, that was not entirely the truth. At the time, he was too angry at Celia and even life to think solely rationally. His past haunted him. His father had loved power, control, and domination in every aspect of his life, even his heir’s. Any time Leo misbehaved or did not earn the best marks at school, any time a master or professor was the least bit critical, Leo would be beaten as punishment. Even now, his father’s words about upholding the family honor and legacy sounded in his ears. Indeed, Leo intended to send Celia away out of pride as much as concern for her well-being.
And for the last four years, he had spent every day regretting the choice. Had he been less selfish, Celia might not have cursed him. And until the last few months, that is all he had ever cared about. Himself.
Now, however, he considered the legacy he might leave behind, as his father had often warned him. The world thought him a recluse and mad. Some rumored he had killed Celia. As an acknowledged heir, Rosie would inherit the houses and money, but the title would go to some distant relation Leo had never met. His legacy would only live on in Rosie and for the first time in nearly six years, he considered her more than a burden. Unfortunately, after near neglect for five years and Celia’s control of the child, Rosie hated Leo’s presence. But each time she struck out, Leo could only relive his own past. He had been just as hurting as a child. Against all the odds, it endeared her to him.
For months now, Leo had accepted his fate. But it was not until tonight, that he had any hope of success in breaking Celia’s hold on Rosie. Bella had handled Rosie–and the news of the curse—extremely well. For the first time in his life, Leo fell asleep fully satisfied in another person and with a kernel of hope blooming in his heart.
The morning came too early, but Leo had never been lazy. He dressed with renewed vigor.
“I heard about the adventure with Lady Rosalyn,” Potter said while assisting Leo.
“Indeed,” said Leo. “I am sure the whole Castle has heard of it.”
“She is a beautiful lady.”
Leo smiled as he remembered Bella’s shocked face as she looked in the mirror and declared with surprise that she was beautiful. Had she never seen herself that way before? Even more, the mirror reflected the heart. Bella’s inside was as beautiful as her outside. “Indeed,” was his only reply.
“Perhaps the curse might be broken at last,” Potter said.
Instantly, Leo’s good mood evaporated. “Potter, I do not think that is possible. Miss Beauley is far superior to me. You know what I truly am. You know the beast that rages in me. I am as I have always been. Unlovable.”
“Master,” Potter said lowly.
“That is enough. Please send Harrison around. I would like to go over the plans for the spring planting.”
After the servant had left, Leo finished his preparations alone. He trusted Potter more than any soul on earth, but there were times when he overstepped his position. Leo was through with vain hopes of love. Bella could never love him; it was futile to try. Nor did he have time for such distractions. Today, he would write a letter to his heir, inviting him to the Castle. If he proved a competent and a caring man, he might be Rosie’s future guardian. At any rate, he should know more of the position he would inherit.
When he entered the breakfast room, Bella was already there, enjoying hot chocolate. “Good morning,” she said with a smile and Leo’s heart skipped to an unusual rhythm.
“Good morning. Did you manage to sleep?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Lady Rosalyn was still abed when I came down. I suppose she was worn out from the night. I have been thinking about how to begin her lessons. I would like to do them in a different room.”
“Certainly. I would suggest avoiding the South end as it is where Celia resided. Otherwise, consider yourself the mistress of the house.”
Bella’s eyes went wide. “The mistress?”
“Yes. And on that note, my heir will be coming to visit in a few days. I wondered if you might care to act as hostess.”
“Hostess?” This time, she nearly choked on her chocolate.
Leo did not know how to tell her, but he had begun to think it was terrible of him to not take care of her next position upon her death. If she did not wish to return home, that is. Additionally, how would Rosie handle being separated from her? If all went as he hoped, the child would be attached to Bella. If his heir was to become Rosie’s guardian, then the best arrangement for all would be for Bella to marry the heir. She would soon become a duchess and assume many responsibilities. Planning a small ball would give her practice and reassure Morgan of her suitability.
“I am certain you will be marvelous. You must have the skills in order to teach Rosie, after all.”
“I…I…I can host small things. Never for a duke!”
“This is one guest, who I do not even know.” Having finished his light breakfast, Leo stood. “Mrs. Potter can assist, of course. Again, anything you desire shall be at your disposal. I wish you and Rosie a good day.”
Leo sketched a bow and left. Although he could not leave the Castle, guests had visited through the years. He had never felt awkward during a conversation before. The startling truth was, he valued Bella’s good opinion more than he had ever cared for another’s in his life.
Arriving at his study, he penned his letter to the heir. Promptly on time, Mr. Harris arrived to discuss Spring plans. A different sort of pride burned in Leo’s heart. He might not be long for this world, but he could ensure those in his care did not suffer from his absence. With any luck, the heir could arrive immediately.