The next morning, Leo came down late to breakfast. Nor did he smile at Bella. He greeted her with civility, but that was all.
“Leo, when had you wanted to investigate the cave? Lady Rosalyn seems to only handle lessons until noon.”
“After noon, then,” he said and focused on his meal.
Bella hurried to finish her meal and then left. What had changed in him? But then, he was rude when they first met as well. It could very well be that yesterday was out of the ordinary for him.
It could also be that he was tired of her after spending much of yesterday and last night with her. When she awoke in her bed, she knew he must have assisted in her getting there. Bella blushed scarlet at the thought of Leo holding her in his strong arms.
Bella moved lessons with Rosie to the Kitchen. She thought perhaps with all the other distractions, at least Rosie would not fixate so much on the outdoors. Additionally, Bella could use small treats to motivate the child.
“Impressive, Lady Rosalyn! You know your letters very well!” Bella cheered her young charge on.
The child beamed with the praise. “Now, it is time to learn to write them. This is A,” Bella said as she wrote out the letter. Then she made an outline of the letter. “It’s your turn! Can you trace over the dots?”
Rosie grinned with triumph when she completed the task. Bella continued the lesson for a few more letters before changing to numbers. They then ate lunch.
“Go on and rest now, dear,” Bella told Rosie afterwards.
“Can you tell me a story?”
Bella glanced at the clock. Surely, Leo would understand if they met a few minutes late.
“Yes, but let us go to your room.”
“No! Here!” Rosie then crawled into Bella’s lap so she could not get up.
Bella furrowed her brow and exchanged glances with Jenny and Maria.
“Tell me a story about a princess,” Rosie said.
“Lady Rosalyn, we must always use our manners.”
“Can you please tell me a story about a princess?”
“Yes, of course. Anything else?”
Rosie nodded her head and dropped her voice. “She is an orphan.”
Bella gulped and looked at the maids again. “Very well.”
“And the ending must be happy,” she said and wiggled into a more comfortable position.
Bella smiled sadly at the young girl. What would be her happy ending? Suppressing her concern, she told a story of a princess locked in a castle. A dragon had captured her and received ransom several times. Finally, a prince charged the castle and defeated the dragon.
When Bella looked down, Rosie had fallen asleep.
“How did you think of such things?” Jenny asked her.
“Growing up, I read everything I could. Before that, my mother made up stories for me.”
“It’s sad the miss don’t have a mother,” Maria said.
Jenny shook her head. “Got too much of a mother if you ask me.”
“That ain’t a mother,” Maria replied but did not say more. Bella understood what she meant, however.
“Too high born to make a difference, I reckon. No offense to you, Miss Beauley.”
“You are likely correct, Jenny,” Bella said. “My mother was not a peer but unusual in her rank for overseeing so much of her children.”
“Were you very close to her?” Jenny asked and leaned in close.
“I was,” Bella answered softly. “Not a day goes by that I do not miss her.”
“And the rest of your family?” Maria copied Jenny’s movements. “I’m sure they are missing you.”
Bella smiled. “I do not know. My sisters might not wish me back yet; I was quite the task master for them. I do miss them, and my father and brother,” she said.
Speaking of them pained her. She knew, though, that the pain would lessen in time. Additionally, Leo would probably let her check on them often.
The clock chimed the half hour. “Here, I’ll take her up to bed,” Jenny said. “I’ll have a footman carry her up all those stairs. You enjoy your afternoon.”
Bella smiled her thanks and contained a twinge of sadness as her arms were emptied of Rosie. The poor girl was so desperate for love and happiness. And now that Bella had known the love of a child, how could she let her go? All in all, she was pleased with Rosie’s progress for the day. She would be happier still if she could find a way to withdraw Celia’s hold on her.
Rosie rushed to the front hall. Leo stood pacing. “Miss Beauley,” he said coldly while extending her outerwear.
“I am sorry, Your Grace. Lady Rosalyn wanted to hear a story before her nap and then fell asleep.”
“Hmph,” was all he said, but he did offer his arm.
She declined. If he could not keep a civil tongue, he did not need to imitate other civil behaviors. She loathed a fickle attitude. They walked the path in silence until they reached the lake.
“We’re close now.”
Bella lead Leo up the incline to the cave entrance, and then he lit the lamp. “Wait here.”
“I’m going with you,” she said and stepped behind him.
He let out something like a growl and Bella rolled her eyes. She had seen too gentle of a side of him now to be intimidated by his foul mood. She did not like it but neither did she take take it too seriously.
They walked forward, side by side. As the cave grew darker, Bella stumbled over a rock, and Leo caught her around the waist. He still did not speak, but he held her hand in his. Bella looked away to hide her blush, although it was likely too dark to see. After several more feet, Leo halted and held out the lantern.
“There,” he said and pointed. “Does it seem darker over there?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“I think there might be a recess.”
“I followed the water, so I would not have noticed it yesterday.”
“Come,” Leo said and tugged on her hand.
Crossing the stream, they walked on until they reached a crooked stone wall. Leo ran his hands along it while Bella held the lamp. Finally, he found an engraving. Bringing the light in close revealed the Sundridge seal and below it, a small grip to pull.
“Stand back,” he ordered.
“I still worry…” Bella pleaded.
“I said back!”
The sharpness in his tone caused her to jump backwards. He cast a look over his shoulder to see that she obeyed, and his shoulders slumped.
“Forgive me,” he said lowly. “I’m a beast, as I’ve said before. You deserve better. I just…I don’t know if I can protect you from what’s inside.”
Bella took a tentative step forward. He lashed out due to fear. Quite understandable, really. “I am not asking you to protect me, but to let me be a companion.”
Leo shook his head. “It is my curse, and she was my wife. I will not allow her to harm you.”
“But she seems to have no interest in me.”
Leo hung his head and took a deep breath. Then he released the grip and walked to Bella’s side. “Together?” he asked.
She still would have rather gone alone than risk him, but she appreciated the compromise. “Together,” she said.
In unison, they returned to the grip and Leo pulled on it. A thud reverberated through the ground and then a part of the wall gave way revealing a lair. It was full of herbs, bottles of potions, and books Bella assumed contained spells. She pulled one off a shelf. “In the seventh year of the reign of James I and VI…”
“My ancestors were not Catholics. They were witches!”
“Perhaps…” Bella said, and Leo shuddered. He looked pale and barely breathed. “Are you well, Leo?”
“My father acted as though the family legacy was without spot or blemish! He beat me for every action and yet…this,” he waved his hand around the room, “is what my family is made of!”
“You may still be proud of your family,” Bella cried. “If there is bad, then there must be good. Perhaps it was not the magic that corrupted Celia but rather that she corrupted the powers.”
“What’s this?” She pointed to another crest.
“I see no grips.” Leo pressed on it, and the bookcase swung open. “It was not the library we saw! Should we follow?”
“Together,” Bella agreed.
The passageway grew narrow and seemed to continue forever. At last, it widened to another room with stairs. Following them, they reached a dead end. They looked for another symbol or crest.
“Here!” Bella said when she found it. Pressing on it opened to a large sitting room covered in sheets to protect the furniture from dust.
“Celia’s drawing room,” Leo said through gritted teeth.
“We should go the other way,” Bella said. “I want to retrieve the books anyway.”
Leo mutely nodded his head and remained silent the way back to the lair. Gathering up the books in a satchel she had brought, she followed Leo back to the cave. “Something worries you?”
“I had thought Celia would defend her secrets better.”
After passing through the exit to the lair, Leo pulled on the grip’s handles again. Another loud thud shut the door, and they resumed their exit. After a few steps, their feet touched the water.
“Leo, I do not recall the water being this close to the secret entrance before.”
“We should run,” he said. Grabbing her hand, they sprinted through water that grew ever higher. Previously the water had been only ankle deep but now came to Bella’s knees and continued to rise. She held the bag above her head. The awkwardness slowed her progression.
“What are you doing?” Leo shouted over the sound of pouring water.
“I am keeping the books dry!”
“Hang the books!”
“No, they may have the answer on how to end the curse.”
“There is no ending the curse, Bella. Here, give them to me. You run as fast as you can!”
Reluctantly, she gave the bag to Leo and slogged through the water. Reaching the exit, it came to her chest, and she swam to shore. The once quiet stream had become a rushing river. It seemed impossible to save the books. Even worse, Leo ought to have been right behind her. At the rate the water rose, it would very well be above his head by now and yet Bella did not see him. Just when she resolved to leap into the water and find him, she saw a flash of color.
Leo swam with one arm and held the books on his head with the other.
“What are you doing?” She shouted to him.
“Saving your blasted books!”
Bella could not be certain, but she imagined he smiled. “Hang the books!”
Still, he pressed on and made his way to shore. “Madam,” he said when he got near enough. Bella took the satchel and plopped it on the ground. Leo climbed to the land, breathing hard.
“I can’t believe you did that!” Bella said.
Leo smiled slightly. “All was well until I slipped on a rock. I think it was a fool’s errand, but I decided you must be right. Whether I like it or not, whether good or bad, this is part of my family’s legacy and worth saving. It should not be locked away in secret but instead put on display with the other family books. I know you could not bear to see a book destroyed.”
“How do you know me so well?” Bella marveled.
Leo shrugged his shoulders. Then he looked into her eyes and his deep, intent gaze held her captive. She shivered.
“You’re cold,” he said.
Taking off his coat, which did little in the way of warming as it was soaking wet, he draped it over her. She shrunk beneath the massive piece of fabric. Even more astonishing was the way his linen shirt clung to his skin. If it weren’t for his waist coat, she could have clearly made out the muscles of his torso the way she saw his well-defined arms.
“Come,” he said and nudged her along with a hand at the small of her back while he carried the dry satchel in the other.
Leo looked at Bella as she played the pianoforte after their dinner. They were both tired from the events of the day. He wondered if he did not have more gray hair. Seeing Bella in danger, again, and because of him, again, would have taken years off his life if he wasn’t already doomed to die.
As he had expected, the reply from his heir arrived by express this afternoon. The gentleman was a few years older than Leo and had just inherited a barony. He was still unwed, Leo had no doubt because the man was not ignorant of his status as a potential duke. If Leo acknowledged him as his heir, then Lord Morgan would be more desirable on the marriage mart. Morgan requested to bring his widowed sister. Leo suspected a plan to match make but believed Bella could use female companionship, so he agreed. The brother and sister would be arriving the following day as they only lived thirty miles away.
Leo applauded as Bella finished the piece. “Very beautiful. You will make a superb hostess when the guests come.”
Bella flushed and leafed through more music. Leo began to understand it was her way of hiding nervousness. “When shall they arrive?”
“Lord Morgan replied to my letter by express. He and his sister will reach the Castle by dinner time tomorrow.”
“So soon?” Leo thought Bella whispered, and he entirely agreed with the sentiment.
“Surely it is best for Rosie to meet him as soon as possible. Today’s lesson seemed to go better.”
Leo had watched through the mirror periodically in the day. The scene at lunch particularly touched him. He had seldom seen Rosie so…child-like and vulnerable. As an infant, he was too prejudiced against her and healing from wounds of the fire to pay her any attention. By the time she could walk and talk, she acted out every time they met. Seeing her curled up on Bella’s lap affected him all the more. Bella and Rosie deserved to be happy…and that meant a life without him.
“Thank you,” Bella said. “It did. I think keeping her stimulated and occupied helped.” She looked down at her hands, a sign of hesitation. “I began looking through one of the magic books.”
“I am unsurprised,” Leo said before sipping coffee.
Bella smiled. “There are enchantments of protection we could try.”
Fear seized Leo’s heart. Celia had found magic, and it was terrible. “How can you be certain anything in that chamber was good?”
Flexing her fingers over the pianoforte, Bella chewed her lip. “Not all of the books were for adults.”
“There were primers for children?” Leo could scarcely conceive the idea.
“Why not? If the children knew their parents were magical practitioners, they might as well learn the rules early.”
Leo snorted and folded his arms on his chest.
“The primers clearly indicated magic should be used for good, to protect the innocent not for revenge, not for cruelty or punishment. Celia corrupted the magic she learned.”
“You will not teach Rosie,” Leo said harshly.
Bella drew back. “I had not thought about it! I only wished to explain that the information in the books was intended for good.”
“Books can have intent?”
“Of course! Some tell of far away places or lives to make one forget about their current situation. Some tell of glorious battles meant to inspire patriotism. Some tell lessons of morality, and so on.”
Leo nodded his head. Explained that way, it made sense to him. “These enchantments?”
“They only work in small areas. Perhaps we could designate one room and attempt it there. Rosie might have lessons there and be free of Celia. And…”
Bella glanced at her fingers again. “If you have an idea, I will listen.”
“What if Celia’s curse is similar? What if it only works in small areas, like the nursery and her chambers. You have never had anything happen in the general rooms of the house?”
“No…” Leo considered. For years he had been too angry at his circumstances to consider the logic of such exclusions.
“It’s possible Rosie may even be able to be in the same room as you without a reaction,” she suggested.
Uncertain what to say to that possibility, Leo remained silent.
“You could cease watching in the mirror and really see her. I know how much you care for her.”
Did he? For most of his life, he had sealed away emotions. Bella knocked them down nearly instantly but Rosie had a much more complicated history and relationship with him. He had thought he acted out of moral correctness than any genuine feeling. The image of Rosie seated on Bella’s lap and hugging her entered Leo’s mind.
“That would be nice. Very nice,” Leo said and most astonishing of all, he truly meant it.