“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.”