Bella looked in the mirror in her dressing room and smoothed the gown. It had been a rush order for the dressmaker in the local village, but it was the most ornate gown she had ever worn. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach.
This night was to be a dinner and small ball with neighbors. Leo had asked her to act as hostess, and she had spent many hours, when not hunting for magical artifacts or reading the books for clues on how to end the curse, planning the evening with Mrs. Potter. Even more so, she would be blind to not notice Lord Morgan’s interest in her. It flattered her, and she could hardly conceive that she had gained the notice of a peer and future duke. The mirror in front of her was not Leo’s enchanted one, but when Bella looked in the mirror, she now saw a lady who had faced dangers and peril and came out stronger. She saw a woman who had the love of several friends instead of the mere necessity of her family. No, her physical features had not changed in the least, but Bella finally felt comfortable in her own skin.
“Oh, Miss Beauley,” Jenny sighed as she put the final touches on Bella’s hair.
“My brother will not be able to keep his eyes off you,” Mrs. Hammond had joined her and offered assistance.
Bella blushed. “Lord Morgan is very kind and civil.”
“Civil? I have never seen a man more smitten!” Mrs. Hammond gave the maid a conspiratorial look, “I think he may have selected his future duchess.”
“Me?” Bella jaw’s dropped to the ground. “Impossible!”
“He would be a fool to not see your worth.”
“Alice,” Bella said as Mrs. Hammond had asked her to call her last night after dinner. “I am nervous enough this evening.”
Alice nodded her head and allowed the subject to drop. “You are lovely, everything perfectly in place. You certainly look like you could be the real mistress of this estate. Surely that gives you some confidence?”
Bella smiled. It was nice to have an older woman to discuss matters with again. Alice was nearly old enough to be her mother but was more like an older sister. “It does.”
“And you could never claim to be ignorant. You will do splendidly!”
Toying with a necklace from Leo’s vault, Bella blew out a deep breath. She had managed her father’s household and her siblings. She had survived confrontations with a vengeful ghost and a trap intended to kill her. A dinner party and dancing she could navigate with her eyes closed. “I should check on matters again. You are certain you do not need my help, Alice?
“Jenny will be perfect. I will see you soon.”
The lady left, with the maid following after her. Just before leaving the room, the door connecting to Rosie’s nursery squeaked open. “You’re so pretty!” Rosie said in awe.
“Thank you,” Bella stooped down to speak with her on eye level.
Rosie shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Papa asked me to give this to you,” she held out a small box.
Bella took it and looked at it in wonder. Leo had already given her so much. His selflessness seemed unending.
“Lady Rosalyn?” Maria called from the nursery.
“Go now, love. Mrs. Potter has promised to send you up some of the sweets. Tomorrow I will tell you all about the ball.”
Rosie scampered off, and Bella opened the box from Leo. A note rested atop.
“A diamond does not compare to the sparkle of your eye. The finest jewels in the kingdom do not compare to the beauty of your soul. An enchanted ring for an enchanted beauty. Turn this ring and it will take you to your heart’s desire.”
Arabella held the note close to her heart for a moment. How did others see a beast? Leo was the kindest, gentlest man she had ever known. Looking in the box again, her eyes beheld the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. The diamond was a pale pink color and set as a rose. Bella slid it on over her gloves. It perfectly complimented her gown, complexion, and other jewelry.
Smiling radiantly, Bella left her chamber and descended the stairs. Guests would be arriving any moment, and she finally felt ready for the task. With the ring on her right hand, she felt as though she wore a special shield.
Unfortunately, she never had a moment alone with Leo to thank him for the gift. Lord Morgan monopolized most of her time. Leo had seemed to avoid her since Morgan’s arrival. At the moment he was circled by several female guests, each prettier and richer than the next. The dinner had gone perfectly, and now the ball had commenced. She had danced with Lord Morgan twice and several other gentlemen but craved a dance with Leo. As if he knew the nature of her thoughts, he turned, and his eyes met hers. Wordlessly, he left his companions and approached her.
“Miss Beauley, may I have the honor of this dance?”
“You may,” she smiled at him.
His brown eyes seemed guarded. All of his emotions were expressed in his eyes. She slipped her hand into his, and he led her to the dance floor. They spoke little during the set. They had always had an unspoken communion and tonight was no different.
And yet everything was different.
She had gentlemen paying her attention and had met so many people her head swirled to attempt to remember all the names. She had more stimulating conversation and laughed more than she had in many a week let alone a solitary evening. She felt she was on the verge of something great and wonderful. She even had a suspicion of what it was. Before she was ready for that, she desired to view her family in the mirror. A reminder of where she came from and who she once was would not be amiss. And she needed to know all was well without her.
“Leo, I wondered if I might use the mirror,” she asked as the dance ended.
The question caught him off guard, and he tensed. “All that I have is yours,” he smiled, and Bella imagined she felt the faintest of pressure added to her hand.
“I wanted to see how my family was doing,” she gave a shy smile.
“Of course. It would ease your nerves.” She nodded her head, and he pulled the mirror from his pocket. “Do not tarry too long,” he said as he put it in her hand.
Quickly agreeing, Bella departed to another room for privacy.
“Mirror, show me, my family.”
Bella watched in horror as she saw George ranting, drunk, at an assembled crowd. Next, she saw her home. Her father lay in bed, coughing. Meg and Kate talked in hushed tones wondering about a doctor and paying for it.
Fear seized her heart. Her family needed her! How could she choose between her family and Leo and Rosie?
“Mirror, show me,” she commanded, and the image changed to Leo in his study with Lord Morgan.
“Where is Miss Beauley, Erroll?”
“She will be along momentarily,” he took a sip of port.
“I know I fought this at first, but I am quite enchanted. She will make a splendid duchess.” Bella furrowed her brow. What did Morgan mean? He continued speaking. “You have selected a fine bride. Even Alice adores her.”
Leo said nothing but merely raised his glass in a mock toast.
Her hand flew to her mouth, and she thought she would be ill. Leo suggested Lord Morgan marry her? More than that! It seemed to be an entirely arranged matter, as though she had no choice or opinion. How could she have been so stupid and blind?
“A monster,” she muttered as she fled the room and tears streamed down her face. Leonard Sundridge, third Duke of Erroll was too arrogant, self-centered and selfish. And if she stayed a moment longer she might find herself betrothed to a man she knew little of but that she could never love him.
Tearing off her gown, she quietly changed into one of her old dresses and stuffed the remainder in a valise. Her elaborate hair she could not change. She would be unable to say goodbye to Rosie. Using the mirror, she saw the child sleeping peacefully. At least she had been able to bring the angel some peace.
Creeping down the stairs, Bella returned to Leo’s study to leave the mirror. One last time, she watched him in the mirror.
Leo stood before the fire of the parlor he spoke to Morgan in. His eyes looked pained and haunted. “Bella,” he said.
The mirror fell from her hands, startling Bella. It felt as though his eyes had been piercing hers, as though he could see her. Forgetting about Leo’s note, she worried the ring with indecision. Should she keep it as a reminder of the happy times she had here? Deciding to leave it behind, Bella began to slip the ring off her finger when suddenly the world began to spin and bright lights assaulted her eyes. Covering them, she cowered until the movement was over. When she opened her eyes, she stood before her family home.
Leo looked around the ballroom and could not find Bella. Her crimson gown would stand out against the sea of white dresses. Her red tresses made her distinct amongst the brunettes and blondes assembled. More than that, his heart could recognize her without seeing her, and he knew without a doubt she was not in the ballroom. Leo saw Morgan looking around for her as well. The time drew near when their betrothal was to be announced.
For his own sake, Leo desired to get it over with. Earlier, Morgan drew him aside to thank him, and Leo had the distinct desire to punch him in the face. However, that would only serve himself. Bella needed a husband, and Leo would never dare the presumption she could love him. The things he could offer: a title, wealth, luxuries, meant nothing to her.
Leaving the ballroom, Leo looked in a nearby parlor. Pausing at the fireplace, he leaned his arm on the mantle as though to draw strength from the mighty flames. Resting his head against his arm, he stared at the fire as it danced. It reminded him of dancing with Bella and how gracefully she moved. At least he would not have to live long without her. Anguish ripped through him at the thought. “Bella,” he rasped out.
Taking a deep breath, he continued his search. After several minutes, he found the mirror, discarded on the floor and the glass cracked. But there was no trace of Bella. An unholy terror surged in his breast. Had Celia somehow harmed her? Had she been taken?
Leo raced to the South Drawing Room Bella had made into a prison for Celia. “Show yourself!” He demanded as he walked to the center of the room, tip toeing around the debris of his dead wife’s tantrum the week before. He had told the servants to leave the mess be.
He heard Celia’s unearthly cackle before she appeared before him. “I win,” she said as she circled around him.
“What have you done with her?”
“I have done nothing. It was all you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You showed her the selfish beast you really are. I suppose she did not like Lord Morgan.”
“Celia…” Leo said in an angry tone, although there was nothing he could do. Any threats he made would be empty, and she knew it.
“You and your silly mirror. Child’s play! You had a magical tool but had no idea how to work it! I heard her explain to Rosie how you thought it worked.”
“Did you possess it? You showed her something that made her leave?” Although Leo had been reluctant to explore the magical texts, he did use them to understand more about the items he had retrieved from Celia’s room. He had discovered the ring was enchanted and that the mirror could be used for goodness or darkness—just as Bella had hypothesized.
“I showed her the truth! Her family lies in tatters because of you. You were going to treat her no differently than a piece of horse flesh—given to any bidder.”
“That’s not true,” Leo roared and suddenly heard murmurs behind him.
“What’s the problem here?” Morgan asked and shuffled into the room.
“Bella,” Leo said helplessly. The pain he now felt was worse than when the fiery beam that killed Celia fell on him. It was worse than the pain of neither parent loving him.
“What’s wrong with Miss Beauley?” Mrs. Hammond asked.
“She’s left,” Leo said as he turned and saw a group of curious onlookers and realized he stood in the middle of a room full of broken rubble, holding a broken mirror in one hand and had been shouting at no one.
“Erroll,” Morgan said in a warning tone.
“Lady Fitzwalter, might I show you the library next?” Mrs. Hammond directed the group onward.
“Such a pity,” one person muttered.
“A shame. From such good stock,” said another.
“Killed his wife, I always said,” was the harsh whisper of yet another person.
“Unseemly. You simply can’t find good help these days. I wouldn’t be surprised if the governess had his child in her belly. The way she acted mistress of the house!” An accusatory voice said in nothing like a whisper at all.
“Now, see here!” Leo said and strode after the offender, but Morgan pulled on his arm.
“Let it be. Idle gossip.” Morgan shook his head. “She really ran off?” Leo’s stony silence was confirmation enough. “Any idea where she would go?”
“To her home, I would guess.”
“Near Dumfries. Mrs. Potter has the name. You will go to her?”
“It is the honorable thing to do.”
Leo scrutinized Morgan’s face. “Do you love her?”
“Do you?” Morgan asked in a half warning, half accusatory tone.
Leo made no answer and stalked off. He was done with the ball and heirs. As he left, he heard Celia’s mocking laugh echo down the hall. She had won in one way, but not another. They were still imprisoned together, and the curse was never further from being broken than now, but Rosie did not need to suffer for it.
Creeping into the nursery, he pulled a chair next to her bed as she slept. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the father you needed, Rosie. I’m sorry I wasn’t the man she needed.”
He fell asleep in the early hours of the morning, holding the mirror in his hand.
“Papa,” Rosie’s quiet voice awoke him.
“Yes, Poppet?” Leo asked as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Why are you here?”
“I..I needed to tell you something.” He got up and stretched. Sleeping in a chair was definitely one of the worse ideas he ever had. “Miss Beauley left last night to visit her family. They needed her more than we do.”
Immediately, Rosie’s face fell. Her lower lip trembled, and tears filled her eyes. “But she will come back to visit?”
“Maybe,” he said noncomittingly.
“Can we see her in the mirror?” Hope filled Rosie’s eyes.
Leo held it up. “It seems it broke, but I will read and see if I can mend it. In the meantime, let us have a bit of fun today.”
Rosie gave him a slight smile. He was uncertain what constituted as fun for a five-year-old, having no memories of enjoying childhood himself, but when one’s governess quit without replacement, surely a day in pursuit of recreation was called for.
There was now one month until Rosie’s birthday and Leo hoped they could spend the time in peace and the mutual missing of Arabella Beauley from their lives. Besides time spent with Rosie, fixing the mirror would be his chief concern. He needed to see Bella one last time.