For everyone, it was a restless night.
Belle had barely slept as she tried to decide whether to remain another week and what the outcome might be. The Beast’s words drifted through her mind, leaving her torn, wondering if he would literally die or if it had been figurative because he knew he would miss her so much. He never lied to her in all their weeks together, so why would he now? He emphasized the point so clearly – or so she felt. He and his world were so far away that were it not for certain pieces of evidence, she would have believed it a dream.
There was also the idea that if she left her father, she might never see him alive again. So she spent most of the long night on her knees, praying for guidance, and the few times she dozed had found her sitting in a chair beside the bed, or on top of her bed linen instead of underneath it.
The others in the household were simply in a state of nerves or blissful ignorance.
Sir Maxwell and young Benjamin eventually went to the village, spending most of the night drinking, playing cards and finding some very agreeable female companionship. Due to their pacing, Julia and Gwyneth nearly wore out the floorboards in their individual rooms. And Lady Nicole kept Sir Benjamin company in his library for the merchant was having trouble sleeping. In addition to playing the dutiful betrothed, her quick mind was considering all the problems and reaching conclusions.
At breakfast, the five were pleased to see that when Belle appeared at the table, she was wearing one of her plain gowns and looking less than happy. Not once during the meal did she make mention of a departure, and they allowed her and Sir Benjamin to talk without much interruption, hoping to garner more information regarding the Beast…but none came. Still, it did seem that Belle gave every indication she was staying at home.
“You look tired, Father,” Isabelle told him when he politely covered his mouth to yawn. “Did you not sleep well?” She understood the stress her parent was under, but for some reason, he seemed even older than he had the night before.
“I finally did, yes, thank you, after a cup of warmed wine, but now….Ah…excuse me.” He turned his head in order to yawn again. “I make for poor company I’m afraid. I was attempting to read some letters this morning and could barely keep open my eyes.”
“Perhaps you should rest, Sir Benjamin,” Lady Nicole suggested, discreetly rubbing an index finger over the back of one of his hands.
“I think I will, yes, Lady Nicole, I believe I will. Too much excitement I fear,” he joked, patting Isabelle’s cheek. “Where is Peter?” he asked, referring to his valet. “I should retire to my room for a while.”
“I’ll help, Father,” Isabelle softly said. “I’m not particularly hungry anyway,” and assisting her father up from his seat, she excused herself and guided him out.
Everyone went about their own affairs, although occasionally they would whisper some comment in passing, but nothing was said in the open as they allowed things to play themselves out. Despite being up all night, Ben and Winterbottom still managed to ride out, intent on sharpening their already astute hunting skills, leaving the women behind to spy on Isabelle. They doubted anything would happen in the next few hours so they had time to get a bit of sport in for the day.
It was early afternoon before anyone realized Isabelle had not been seen since breakfast.
“There is not a way for her to have left without us knowing,” Lady Nicole told her friends. “She would have gone to see Sir Benjamin beforehand. She would not leave without doing that.” She practically shoved Julia and Gwyneth up the staircase. “Go to her. Make certain she is all right. We cannot let anything happen to her when we are this close.”
“If she dies of grief over that stupid Beast I will kill her,” Gwyneth incoherently muttered before she and Julia put on their actress’ faces and she softly knocked on their sister’s door.
“She’s gone!” the younger of the two squeaked when there was no immediate answer.
Julia tried the handle. “It’s not locked,” she quietly said. Holding a finger before her lips, they opened the door and looked inside…and their facade collapsed.
Isabelle was sitting before her dressing table, carefully arranging her hair…and she was wearing the magnificent gown they had first seen her wearing upon her return. She was even more stunning if that was possible, and Julia and Gwyneth caught themselves gawking before they finally came to their senses.
“You…You are not leaving us, are you Belle?” Julia managed and the girl shifted to face them.
“Oh Julia, Gwyneth…I did not hear you. Did you knock?”
“Just now,” Julia replied.
“I’m sorry…My mind…I was…I was elsewhere.”
Gwyneth swallowed hard. “But why are you wearing…?”
“I…I was going to tell you all farewell,” the girl told them as she stood. “I’ve already been to see Father and…I tried to explain….He understood. He told me he understood…but Father…there were times when he appeared so…” She sighed. “He is tired…He kept repeating that, but as long as I know he realizes I’m departing…”
“I’m certain him being so confused is a combination of things, Belle,” Julia tried to explain, watching their plan fall to pieces. “He does not want to lose you; he is ill….”
“He seemed more lethargic than ill.”
“It’s a pretense on his part,” Gwyneth said. “Do you think he wants you to know that he is so ill…so terribly ill?”
Isabelle considered it, then shook her head. “I promised him I would ask the Beast if I may return for his wedding and he was content with that. I told him I was honor-bound to rejoin the Beast and he said it was the right thing to do.” She glanced at the floor. “He even said it was wrong of him to grant Sir Maxwell my hand without speaking to me first.”
Julia’s mouth dropped. “You…You mean…you are refusing him as well?”
“I never actually said yes, Julia.” Belle’s voice was firm. “Sir Maxwell will simply have to understand…”
“What a selfish little trollop you are!” Julia shouted as Gwyneth began to cry hysterically. “You are not returning to that creature. You are not going back to that…that monster…to your riches and your…your…luxuries…and to be happier than I have ever been in my life!”
Belle nodded. “I wondered how long the deception would last.”
“You had wondered…?” Julia sputtered, thinking of every epithet she had heard in her life. “Damn you, you ugly, fat little…little…”
“Say it, Julia, say it,” Gwyneth urged. “Tell her what a harlot she is, for that is what she is!”
“Living with that thing! I do not dare imagine the filth you have engaged with it!”
“Oh please, Julia,” Belle sighed, “you are not doing any of us any good. I regret leaving Father, God knows I do. I regret leaving the servants I have cared for since childhood…but I shall not regret leaving you and Gwyneth and Ben and that layabout you would force me to marry. And I’m praying it will not be long before Father realizes that his betrothed is one of the most insincere women I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.”
“Oh God!” Gwyneth screamed.
“She was right!” Julia exclaimed. “Her ladyship was right. You are no better than a serving girl, you ill-mannered little… A governess is all you are fit for! A governess…or someone’s lady’s maid or companion so they may beat you if they see fit.”
“That’s too good for her Julia. Marry her to Sir Maxwell. Let him put her in her proper place.”
“You will never marry me to him against my will or Father’s.”
Julia’s face was red as her fists clenched and without another word, she rushed forward and slapped Isabelle’s face. She was quite surprised when her youngest sister struck her back!
Gwyneth was so hysterical she ran out of the room, bumping into Lady Nicole who had heard the commotion and was coming to their aid. “Oh, God…Oh, God…She’s leaving!”
“She is going nowhere,” Nicole assured her, stepping to the threshold in time to see Julia backing off, shocked. Isabelle was staring down all three women as if daring the next one to try to attack her again. “Dear, dear little Belle,” came the soothing words of the future Lady Hewitt, “we may have to have you put away if you continue behaving like…”
“Do not threaten me, my lady! My father is going to hear of this.”
“Oh…he is much, much too ill for…”
“Do not tell me that! I will see my father and I will tell him about the betrayals under his own roof.”
“Belle…you are distraught.” Lady Nicole’s voice never rose above a soft reassurance, but she discreetly touched both Julia and Gwyneth’s hands to let them know they should back towards the door. “I am certain Sir Benjamin will see that his poor little girl has now gone quite mad after all her isolation with the…Beast-person. With all the pain you have experienced, it is time you had a good rest…protection under the eyes of those that love you, especially Sir Maxwell.”
“There will be no marriage to Sir Maxwell.”
“Oh…but I think there will be…if you will simply give his proposal deep consideration. I believe he is the only man who will suffer your emotional afflictions,” and the moment her friends were in the hallway, Nicole quickly stepped outside the room, slammed the door, and turned the key. Seconds later, Isabelle could be heard trying the interior knob and then beating on the door.
“Brilliant!” Julia cried out. “I wish we had thought of that. When did father give you the keys?”
Lady Nicole fingered the set suspended from her belt. “Oh…a week or so ago. I’ve forgotten now.” The duty had – as both Sir Benjamin’s daughters knew – given the lady almost full status as chatelaine of St. Regis Park without actually being its’ mistress yet, and they admired her ability not to have flaunted it.
“I am most impressed, my dear,” Julia began. “Most impressed….But…” She nervously glanced back at the door. “But…what if one of the servants should…?”
“They will be dismissed without reference. Besides, I shall have one of my own servants stand guard. He is trustworthy and obeys only me. She will not be disturbed.”
“But…what will Father say?” Gwyneth was sincerely worried.
“I just came from your father. Sir Benjamin will rest well without Isabelle’s interference, should she manage to escape. It is an amazing thing…laudanum I mean. Your sister needs some as well, but I doubt she’ll accept anything from our hands except by force.”
“Oh…you are so brilliant,” Julia repeated, still rubbing her aching cheek. She would never admit it, but Belle’s blow had been more forceful than her own. “I would force it down her throat if you permit it…then…”
“Then what, Julia?” Gwyneth eagerly asked.
Smirking, Julia explained, “Send Sir Maxwell to her. while she sleeps When he is done, she would have no choice but to marry him. In fact, as soon as he and Ben have returned, I might suggest that to him. I am certain he will not protest.”
“Ooooo! It’s what she deserves! When he mentioned the Hellfire Club…Well, we all know the rumors.”
Lady Nicole nodded in agreement. Former club members, now elderly, had whispered to her about the goings-on once they knew of her own inclinations. That might prove helpful to them now. Corrupting the innocent girl as an introduction to life with Winterbottom – yes, Julia’s idea had merit.
“It might do Isabelle good to begin her new education before their marriage,” Nicole considered. “Learning her place as a proper wife should. As the wife of such a man should.” She trembled at the thought of such perversions at his hands, wondering what he could teach her. “Sir Maxwell said it will take time to make her more pliable. Why not begin at once? After all, if she is still untouched after her weeks with the Beast, time is required to form the maiden exactly to His Lordship’s measurements…if you comprehend my meaning, ladies.”
The three giggled in an oddly ladylike fashion as if they were speaking of the latest gossip.
The servants were ordered to keep their tongues having had their employment threatened, then advised that the young mistress was unwell in her mind, and must be left undisturbed until a physician might examine her.
One of Lady Nicole’s dependable menservants was stationed in the hall outside Isabelle’s room. Sir Benjamin was checked to see that he slept quite well despite his daughter’s shouts for help. Young Ben and Sir Maxwell had returned to the house not long after Nuncheon and were apprised of the situation. Now, taking advantage of the beautiful late afternoon, the small group had dressed for dinner, but instead of sitting in the drawing room as was customary, decided to relax in the coolness of the side garden, behaving as if the entire world was at peace.
“I have reached a decision,” Sir Maxwell said after taking several gulps of his wine. “Ben and I spoke while we were out and we are unanimous. Now that you have taken this step with Miss Isabelle, there is no looking back.”
Ben grunted. “Of course that is all well and good, but how can we get to the Beast? That is the dilemma we cannot get past.”
“And she never told your father how she came to be here?” Winterbottom inquired, glancing from Ben to his sisters.
“No. From what Father has said, she never told him the full story. And of course, she never said a thing to either Gwyneth or me, even when we were being kind to her,” Julia moaned.
“I think that Isabelle only tells us what the Beast has allowed her to tell,” Nicole surmised.
Julia nodded. “We have heard her describe the castle and the grounds and this alleged magic, but beyond that, nothing more.”
“And most of that we eavesdropped to hear,” Gwyneth sadly added.
“Well, to hell with her, I say,” Julia exclaimed. “If she won’t tell of her own volition then I’ll torture her until she does!”
“Julia!” Gwyneth cried.
Sir Maxwell grunted, “If you do that, do not count on me for any additional assistance, Lady Roberts!”
“Julia did not mean that, did you, Julia?”
“I meant every word and you feel the same, Gwyneth.” Her personality switched and she was all sweetness when she crooned, “Sir Maxwell, perhaps you can make Isabelle see reason. She is all alone in her chambers, wearing the very clothes she arrived in the other day.”
Winterbottom paused as he remembered the moment he had seen her again. “Ah…is she?”
“I am certain she would tell you anything you desire. That is, once you…persuaded her.”
“Ah…yes.” The idea was quite pleasing. His jowls quivered, his loins straining at the ‘fall’ of his pants. “Yes indeed.”
Lady Nicole tapped her fan on the tabletop. “I do not feel such a thing is necessary…yet. We will…”
“What was that noise?” Ben asked, turning around.
“Sounded like hooves,” Sir Maxwell told them. “Were you expecting guests?”
“No, no,” Lady Nicole answered. “We are not home to company today. All of our friends know that.”
“Well, that is most certainly…” Gwyneth started to say, but she paused. “Oh. Oh! Oh my God!” She pointed, her arm trembling. “Look!”
Those that were sitting jumped up, stunned, for galloping down the main path to the house was a riderless pure white horse, equipped with the most beautiful saddlery they had ever seen.
“Magnifique!” Ben shouted and he ran after the animal as it headed to the stables.
“So we know for certain this is the seventh day,” Julia remarked as the others walked after him.
“And that he is awaiting her.” Winterbottom sounded almost jealous as he mumbled the words.
When they reached Benjamin, he was guiding the horse into an empty stall, ordering the grooms to stay away or he’d take his crop to all of them. The boys – knowing the young master meant every word – disappeared.
“So this is Magnifique,” Sir Maxwell commented, standing a few feet away as if fearing attack. “He indeed equals his name. I suppose Heaven must have sent him.”
Gwyneth gulped. “More likely Hell.”
“Do you think anyone else saw him?” Julia wondered aloud while looking about.
“The main thing is that Isabelle did not see him,” Lady Nicole reminded her.
“Should we depart now?” Benjamin asked, looking at his friend. “I need to change and get my guns if we’re going to have a bit of sport at the Beast’s castle,” and he winked. Downing a few glasses of wine had fortified him. He was prepared to take on the world.
“And I, mine, my lady,” Winterbottom chimed in. “I am also eager for the hunt, but I realize we must tread carefully.”
Lady Nicole nodded. “I am in full agreement. That is why I think we should delay our departure until tomorrow morning.” The small group appeared dismayed and she explained, “There is great danger in hurrying off without a proper scheme. The last thing I wish is for any of us to be in danger. My advice…” and her eyes scanned her companions, one by one, letting them know she intended to be obeyed, “is that we wait. We have no idea where this castle is or how long it will take to arrive? What if we depart today – as late an hour as it is – and become lost as Sir Benjamin did…and the castle does not appear to give us shelter? I do not wish to die in some forsaken woods. And think on this. The Beast told Belle that if she has not returned in seven days he will die. Consider what that means. By the eighth day, we should have a small advantage. If he is not dead, he will be weaker and not on his guard. If he feels Belle has indeed deceived him, he will be grief-stricken and perhaps ready for us to give him peace.”
Gwyneth nudged her sister. “I do not know what we would do without her.”
Winterbottom was thinking the same. Lady Nicole was as calculating as a general or admiral in a campaign, and something about that strength was attractive to him, which left his own mind to briefly wander. Tie the bonds of matrimony with Isabelle….Maintain this great lady’s favor….Sir Benjamin is old and his health may not improve. Lady Nicole is still young, beautiful…Yes, Isabelle will need proper taming to make her a fit wife and mother, or as her husband, I will put her away. But I believe once I make her see reason, she will comply and enjoy it….’Here now my lady – you will invite your mother for a visit or you’ll answer to me.’ He imagined Isabelle, contrite at disagreeing, then meekly accepting her husband’s suggestion – or perhaps she would be salacious, curious as to what he had in mind for them. I could have the best of two worlds…Both luscious women, together, sharing my bed…What music the three of us would make…
Ben’s eyes were gleaming. “Therefore we leave Magnifique here?”
A fiery determination was on Lady Nicole’s features. “We leave him here and depart at dawn. Whichever of you feels you can handle him can ride him.” She pointed at Sir Maxwell and then Ben, “The rest of us shall follow. We will work out our parts this evening.”
“And what of Belle?” Julia inquired, looking aside at Winterbottom and seeing he remained hopeful of beginning Isabelle’s ‘lessons’ in being more proper. “If we allow that racket to continue, one of the old retainers will break, throw all caution to the wind and attempt some rescue.”
Lady Nicole seemed unperturbed. “Leave that to me as well.”
“Ah…the Beast has sent Isabelle a gift,” Ben told them as curiosity got the best of him and he felt at the saddlebag.
Julia grinned and then was disappointed. “If it were gold, I’d only have to touch it and it would turn to straw. You open it, Ben. Perhaps you’ll be more fortunate.”
Their brother did, opening the bag and slowly removing the slightly heavy object. “It’s…It’s a…a…mirror?” His sisters reached out to hesitantly touch it with their fingertips, and when it did not transform, they began to fondle the beautiful carving, admiring the workmanship, and the metal of which it was made. “He sent the whelp a mirror?”
Julia and Gwyneth began to laugh and the eldest said, “His message to her is clear: look and you will see the ugly face of a girl who breaks her promise.”
It was Ben’s turn to chuckle. “You see my dears, the Beast’s not all that stupid after all.”