Bella sagged into her bed at the end of a long day. She had been home for a week and immediately cast into her old position of servant and housekeeper for her family. Her sisters seemed barely shocked that she arrived without notice, or without them writing to her, and instead seemed annoyed at her being away at all. That she came with no gifts for them, they found equally insulting.
Her father did not seem as ill in truth as she had seen in the mirror. Or perhaps she was merely finished with treating him as an infant for every minor ailment. Yesterday, he admitted the reason she had been requested as governess was because he had tried to take Rosie from the house.
Bella could understand how it must have seemed to her father, but she could not excuse his deceit in leading her to believe the arrangement was because of George’s debt. When she defended Leo and his relationship with Rosie, her father insisted she was wrong and sent her to the kitchen. As far as Bella could tell, the only person that seemed to appreciate her presence was Cook.
She rubbed her aching feet and then stretched her back. The truth was, she had eagerly launched herself into Leo’s troubles. It seemed she felt some innate need to rescue people. The difference was she felt appreciated at the Castle and Leo never took her assistance for granted.
“Enough about him. You knew him only a few days and in the end…” Bella trailed off. For, in the end, he proved exactly what she had seen in the beginning. Perhaps not exactly, but neither was he what she had believed him to be.
“George was right,” she mumbled before she fell asleep. She needed to find some way to live life on her terms.
The next morning, Bella awoke at her usual time and immediately began chores. By mid-morning, she had accomplished much of her to do list. The difference between planning a fine meal and ball for a duke and scrubbing in her father’s house was stark, however. Unexpectedly, she heard a vaguely familiar male voice calling out in the hall.
“I will see to it,” Bella told Cook.
Arriving upstairs, she stopped in her tracks. “Lord Morgan?” She rubbed her eyes in disbelief.
“Miss Beauley,” he executed a perfect bow, even as his eyes scanned her stained apron. “Forgive me. No one answered my knock.”
Bella hastily wiped her hands on the offending garment and then attempted to untie it. “Allow me,” he said and came behind her to undo the string. His presence unnerved her. Freed from the apron, she invited him to the drawing room.
“This is a fine home,” Morgan said, and Bella felt the weight of ridiculous small talk.
“May I ask why you are here, Lord Morgan?”
“You suddenly vanished, Miss Beauley. One minute we were enjoying each other’s company at Erroll’s ball and the next you left without a word.”
Bella blushed but raised her chin. “I would not say it was so sudden as that. I had previously left your side.”
Morgan nodded his head. “Yes, to dance with Erroll but you did not return to the ballroom. I worried.”
His tone sounded almost hurt and deeply concerned. “I apologize,” Bella said before recalling his plans with Leo. She would not be made to feel the villain here. “However, I believe you spoke with His Grace and did not seem concerned about my whereabouts then.”
Morgan’s eyebrows raised high. “You heard my conversation with Erroll?” Bella nodded her head but would not explain how. “And that offended you in some way?”
His incredulity was obvious to her. “That you both should consider I would marry a man I had just met, with knowing very little of his character or temper, yes. That I would marry him without so much as being asked, moreso. I suppose you believed I would marry you based on your rank and wealth alone. To me, that is the highest insult.”
Bella had stood and begun pacing during her speech. “To think that Mrs. Hammond’s friendship was nothing but an insincere ploy!”
Lord Morgan shot out of his chair at that charge and stood before her, ceasing her movement. “Alice’s friendship was genuine. Do not lay such a charge on her feet. Will you listen to me?” He reached for her hand.
Bella pulled her hand away and turned her head. What could he say?
“It was Erroll’s idea!” He said angrily.
“I know!” Heat rushed into Bella’s cheeks.
“So you know that he loves you? I know he is ugly, but why not go back to him?”
“What?” Bella’s eyes snapped to his. She could not breathe as she waited for him to repeat the words.
“Erroll asked I marry you in exchange for half his income. I thought then that you were his mistress.”
“No!” Bella said and began to storm off.
“Wait! I apologize!” He called after her.
Bella whirled around, tears threatened to spill out of her eyes. “If he loved me, why would he wish I marry you?”
Morgan shrugged his shoulders. “He said he was dying. I assume he wished to protect you. He asked for me to become Lady Rosalyn’s guardian as well and to allow neither of you to enter the Castle again. If you want to know more, you would have to ask him.”
The world titled and Bella stumbled to a chair. She worked hard for breath, it felt as though someone stood on her chest. “Breathe, lass,” Morgan said as he thrust a glass of wine into her hand.
Oh, Lord. Leo loved her. He didn’t want to tell her because of the curse. Couldn’t he see that even if their time together was short, she would have rather spent it with him? He loved her enough to give her up. That was more than anyone had loved her before.
“How is he?” Bella asked when her mind began to calm. Morgan would not meet her eyes and remained silent. “Tell me!”
“We found him after you left. He had destroyed the South Drawing Room and was shouting, incomprehensibly. He was holding this,” Erroll held up the mirror.
“Where did you get that?”
“He has spent all day with Lady Rosalyn since you left. Every night he would hide in his study with books and the mirror—but it was broken. Four nights ago, I found him staring at this—whole, with no cracks. Tears filled his eyes and he chanted your name over and over again.”
Tears welled in Bella’s eyes. Leo must have consulted the magical books to find some way of fixing the mirror. And then his first desire was to see her?
“After he finally fell asleep, I took the mirror and determined to find you. I needed to understand what happened.”
“You can never understand,” Bella said and shook her head.
“Try to explain,” Morgan pushed.
Bella took in a deep breath and began to tell all she had experienced in the days since arriving at Leo’s Castle. Not caring if Morgan believed her tale, she needed to know how Leo and Rosie were. “Did anything unusual happen after Leo left the room? Was Lady Rosalyn safe?”
“If you mean to ask if this ghost of the duchess returned to haunting the Castle, I would say it did not appear so.”
“What use is that?” Bella cried and then recalled the mirror. “Let me see the mirror!”
Morgan handed it over. Bella watched as the mirror showed her George with a sword and breathing hard. “No, I do not worry about George now. Show me Leo! Show me the Duke of Erroll!”
Again, George appeared but this time, Bella noted he was not wearing fencing gear. Then, she saw Leo tossing a matching sword down. “I will not fight you, Beauley,” he said calmly.
“You will pay for what you have done!” George screamed and charged at Leo.
“No!” Bella cried in horror. Then, immediately a new fear emerged. “Rosie! Mirror, show me, Lady Rosalyn!”
Lord Morgan, disturbed by Bella’s reactions, leaned over her shoulder. They saw Rosie in a carriage, crying and begging to return back to the Castle.
“Who has her? Oh my goodness! What shall I do?” Bella stood to her feet and raced to the door. Her ring! It had allowed her to travel in the blink of an eye once before.
“Wait!” Morgan called after her.
Bella cast an impatient glance at him with her hand on the door.
“The carriage was mine. I believe my sister has chosen to take Lady Rosalyn from the Castle. We had discussed it before I left. If your brother is there and acting like a madman, Alice will do anything to ensure Rosalyn’s safety.”
Bella nodded her head. Of course, they had no idea of the curse and even Rosie did not understand why she could not leave. But, oh! Leo! Even now he could be dead. She only hoped she could get there in enough time to say goodbye.
“Thank you, Lord Morgan,” Bella said. She knew she had seemed hateful and ungrateful before. “I truly appreciate your coming. I must go, immediately. You do understand?”
“Of course,” Morgan said, and Bella raced up to her chamber. Sliding the ring on her finger, she twisted it and immediately stood before Sundridge Castle. Heart pounding, she ran toward the front entrance.
Leo lay panting on the floor of the great hall, blood pouring from the wound received by Bella’s brother. “I did not dishonor your sister!”
“No more lies! You called my debt and forced her to come here. And then you couldn’t keep your filthy hands off her!” George Beauley swung wildly, and Leo had only just enough energy to slide out of the way.
“No! She worked as a governess. You have heard lies.”
“I do not believe you! You killed your first wife. I am happy Bella got away before you ended her life too.” Beauley’s blade swiped Leo’s arm.
Were all Beauley males so hot headed? Even still, his words pierced sharper than the blade. Leo’s heart ached for missing Bella, but he too was glad she had left before he had ruined her life. She had become too embroiled with his concerns. And suggesting she marry Morgan? A life without love—for Morgan surely did not love Bella, no matter his pretty words on finding her enchanting—would be worse than death for her.
“Such an ugly, beastly thing. A monster. I would be doing the world a service to kill you,” Beauley said as he hovered over Leo.
“Do it, but ask if you think your sister would want you as a murderer. I already forfeited the duel,” Leo said, his chest heaving.
Beauley swore and took a moment to consider Leo’s words. Leo braced for the mortal blow. At this rate, his life was ending anyway. Before Beauley had made contact with his skin, and even now it was not a grave wound, Leo felt the life draining from him. Mrs. Hammond had taken Rosie away when a madman stormed into the house. His hours were numbered. Perhaps he had only minutes.
Suddenly, the door slammed open. “George!” Bella screamed.
Beauley immediately spun around and Leo jerked his head up, the movement making him dizzy. Forcing himself to focus, his eyes locked with Bella’s.
“Bella?” George asked amidst the confusion.
“George, stop this!” Bella demanded and walked closer.
“I am defending your honor,” Beauley said like a child blaming poor conduct on another one starting it first.
“My honor is entirely intact. I do not know what you have heard, but His Grace has always behaved well toward me.”
“But you came back so suddenly. Meg wrote to me of it. Then I heard of the ball. Several of the guests thought you were his mistress.” Leo said with far more disapproval than a man of the world such as he should have.
“Do you think I would do such a thing?” Bella asked angrily. “Do you really believe I would do that—even for you and your debt?”
George shifted his weight between his feet. “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
“Of course you didn’t. Do you think he forced me? If he managed to force himself on me, what are the chances of me then being able to escape? Or that he would have me act as hostess for his ball and mistress of his estate?”
“Oh…” George said and dropped the sword with a loud clatter.
Bella approached her brother, and they spoke in hushed tones. Or perhaps it was that Leo’s ability to hear was diminished by the sound of his heartbeat in his ears and a rushing sound.
Unexpectedly, they grew very close.
“Leo,” Bella’s sweet voice whispered.
He tried to respond, and no sound came out.
“What is happening?” Bella asked, her voice shaking.
“I do not know…” George replied. “I swear I didn’t wound him that badly.”
“No…look! He’s glowing!”
Leo felt his eyes begin to flutter open and something the size of a large dog threw itself on his chest and wept bitterly.
“There, there. All will be well,” he said uncertain as to why a dog wept on him.
“Papa!” At last, the creature croaked out, and Leo recognized the mop of curly hair was Rosie.
“How did she get here?” Bella asked.
“She opened the door and jumped from the carriage,” a disembodied voice broke in.
“Love you, Papa. Love you!” Rosie cried over and over again, and the tears dropped on his chest.
Leo rubbed her back. “I love you too, poppet. Be a good girl for Mrs. Hammond.”
“But I want to live with you and Miss Beauley!” Rosie cried.
“Miss Beauley has to go home, sweet,” he said gently. Was this his afterlife? Living with Rosie was no hell, but no Bella could not make it heaven.
“I am home,” Bella said and Leo tried again to focus his eyes. “Hush, rest now,” she said, and Leo obeyed.
Leo could hear nothing else. Instead, he had the sensation of being lifted into the air as bright lights assaulted his eyes. He was filled with warmness. Then, everything went black.
After what felt like an eternity, Leo awoke. His eyes opened with ease. He took in his surroundings. Bella and Rosie were curled up next to him on a bed. Bella’s eyes fluttered open.
“You’re awake,” she said with a smile.
“I’m alive?” he asked.
Bella slowly nodded, her smile growing.
“I’m alive,” Leo repeated in disbelief. “How?”
“Rosie,” Bella said. “She would not go with Mrs. Hammond. She would not leave you. You were freed by her love.”
Leo looked over at the child sleeping on his side. He would have never guessed all those years ago that loving Rosie would have broken the curse.
“And you are…staying?” he asked.
“Yes,” Bella said and smoothed a hand over her skirt. What was she nervous about?
“I admit I am a bit jealous of Rosie.”
“You are?” Perhaps he was not recovered enough for he was not following the conversation very easily. “Why?”
“She has your love,” Bella said.
A low rumble sounded in Leo’s chest.
“Why is my affection humorous?” Bella asked and sounded hurt.
“I’m not laughing at your confession, only how you confessed it. You’re jealous of a five-year-old!”
“I’ll remind you that you’ve not given me any reason to not be jealous,” she said raising an eyebrow and he laughed again.
Lifting one of her hands to his lips, Leo bestowed a tender kiss. “I love you Arabella Beauley. I am not worthy of your esteem but would be greatly honored by your hand in marriage.”
“I love you Leonard Sundridge, and I promise to never leave your side again.” Bella picked up his hand and kissed it. “So, you see I must marry you,” she added with a playful grin.
“Your brother is not around to run me through, is he?”
Bella shook her head. “No, everyone has left for home. And I am home. Where I belong.”
Leo smiled, marveling at how it felt to do so. “Why do you think Rosie is the one who broke the curse?”
“Because I had loved you for weeks, you silly man! Trying to make me marry Morgan!”
“I thought to do it because—”
“I know, I know,” Bella said and Leo smiled again. For the rest of his life, he would be grateful for this woman. “Rosie said it first, though.”
“Say it again,” Leo said and he hugged her close.
“I love you, Leo. Now, look in the mirror,” Bella said as she retrieved the enchanted mirror from the bedside table. She handed it to him and then returned to her position with her head leaning on his chest.
For the first time, when Leo looked in the mirror, he saw his outward image reflected back. The love of Bella and Rosie had done that and freed him not just from Celia’s curse, but it allowed him to see the good in him. He would never feel unlovable again.
“There we are,” he said. “Two beauties and their tamed beast.”
“You were never a beast to me,” Bella said before kissing his cheek, “but you made me a beauty.”
“You have always been, but I will gladly tell you hourly if it will give you peace,” he said before claiming her lips.
“I knew it would be a happy ending,” Rosie said sleepily from his other side.
Leo laughed to himself. A happy ending indeed!