Isabelle ran as fast as she could to join the Hewitt party, never once looking back to see whether Winterbottom was following. The family was laughing at some joke or perhaps the playful miss by Lady Nicole. None noticed when Belle ran to her father’s side, slipping down beside him.
“Isabelle…it is past time you joined us. We only have the day remaining, do we not, and the evening as well?” His daughter was nodding, attempting to speak but not wishing to interrupt. “Did you finish your task?”
“My…” She had forgotten the arrangements for his rooms and she suddenly looked down, noticing that the basket and its’ handle were still looped around her left wrist. The blooms she had chosen were missing, likely lost when she sprinted from Sir Maxwell’s advances. “I…”
“Belle…you must hurry and join us,” Gwyneth called, smiling her brightest. “I was reminding Father and telling Lady Nicole of what a wonderful player you were as a child.”
“Father…” Belle’s voice dropped as if sharing a confidence. “Father I must speak to you.”
“Of course, of course child. I am listening. What do you wish to tell me?”
Her voice went even lower. “Please Father, in private. It is urgent.”
The merchant’s eyebrows rose…and then he saw Winterbottom approaching and his youngest’s distress was clear. “Ah…he has spoken to you then?”
Belle hurriedly nodded, leaning into her parent’s ear. “Father please listen.
Young Benjamin rushed to her, firmly taking one arm to lift her to her feet. “Belle, Belle…you must not be so downhearted regarding tomorrow. Come…we’re waiting for you.”
“Ben…I…I…I…must speak to Father. It’s urgent,” she explained, pulling back slightly when her brother tried to place a mallet in her hand.
Gwyneth and Julia applauded and urged her on.
“Can it not wait, dear sister?” Ben asked. He could not believe himself, that he had managed to go so long without telling the girl what he honestly thought of her behavior.
Isabelle shook her head, desperate. “No…No…It…It…” she stammered, about to return to Sir Benjamin’s side when Winterbottom finally strolled up out of breath.
“Sir Maxwell!” the older man exclaimed.
“Sir Benjamin,” Winterbottom grunted, reaching down to clasp the merchant’s hands.
“So all is well then, sir?”
Maxwell rubbed a hand over his chins, chuckling as he did. “Nothing is assured…but I am…optimistic.” His eyes focused on the girl.
“Isabelle?!” Hewitt seemed honestly surprised and disappointed. “Isabelle! I prayed you might give this good gentleman an answer so our fears for you may be at rest.”
“Your…fears? Father…” All activity stopped as everyone watched Belle return to her father, sitting beside him on the chaise. “Father…you know I am to return to the Beast tomorrow.”
She was shocked to hear her sisters cry out in fear before sobbing.
Lady Nicole murmured ‘May God prevent that happening!’
Young Ben shouted, ‘Oh no Father, no. Remember what we’re agreed upon.’
Puzzled, Isabelle whispered, “I…do not understand…”
Hewitt sighed. “We – as a family – have gathered together to determine some plan of action on your behalf. It is my fault you have been shamed as you have…”
“No…no…not…I’m not ashamed. There is nothing for which I should be ashamed. I thought you understood.”
“You made your case to me, that is true but…” Hewitt cast an eye toward the others before he cleared his throat. “I beg of you dear child, do not return to him. Sir Maxwell – and I accept this – has sworn to protect you as your husband if you remain with us.”
“What?” Isabelle muttered. Her stomach went hollow, the bile creeping into her throat.
“It is a far, far better fate for you than returning to the Beast. It need never find you again.”
Isabelle glanced around her. There they were. The sympathetic appearing siblings with their weak and eager smiles. The future step-parent looking cautious, likely unnerved that she might respond the wrong way. Sir Maxwell at his most hopeful, tapping his fingers upon that enormous belly, the action causing her to shiver when she recalled how he had attempted some bewitchment before touching her body in her most forbidden areas. She still felt unclean. But she looked away from them and to her father, sitting forward, waiting for her response, dismay and expectancy tugging at his tired features.
“I…” She felt trapped again, as she had during Winterbottom’s proposal. Standing, she moved backwards as she spoke. “I…Please…excuse me.” Without another word, she hurried from the garden and ran towards the house.
“I may have pushed too hard,” Winterbottom confessed to his four associates after the merchant’s valet escorted a distraught Sir Benjamin indoors.
“Well, did she answer you yes or no?” Lady Nicole impatiently asked.
“Neither….In fact…she did not say much of anything.”
“How did she react?” Gwyneth wondered,.
“It is difficult to say. She was under one of the enchantments I studied from an erstwhile member of the Hellfire Club.”
Lady Nicole smiled at the thought of the notorious old ‘gentlemen’s club’ intended for the more depraved of the aristocracy. “So the rumors are true!”
Winterbottom leered. “They oft times are, My Lady, although it is wise not to advertise everything. Remaining enigmatic is often best. It is unfortunate so many members chose to ignore that advice.”
“Indeed. Well, I admit I am impressed with the news. I wondered if you might attempt one, that is, if you knew of an appropriate charm.”
“Attempted, yes. I was told it would be most effective in enslaving the subject, but instead of responding as she should have and obeying me, she was struck dumb.”
Julia giggled. “Haven’t you noticed? Isabelle is dumb.”
“Nevertheless…” Sir Maxwell interrupted, “I pray she does not become suspicious. She still maintained an awareness, even when I believed her mine. Her will is quite strong. It will take much to make her more…pliable, a duty which will bring me great pleasure. Therefore, we must continue to show her our affections and beg her not to leave…and I shall proceed in being the adoring lover.”
Nicole’s lovely features were somber. “I only hope we did not frighten her by you presenting your marriage proposal. She can be so overly sensitive on occasion or so I’ve noticed.”
They all grew quiet until Ben proclaimed: “I think Gwyneth and Julia should make the next move.”
“As in what, Ben?” Gwyneth glanced at her sister but Julia shrugged, equally confused.
Their brother offered an enormous grin.
“I do love Benjamin. I do, Julia, I honestly do, but there are times when his ideas are ludicrous.”
It was a half-hour after dinner had concluded. Following another walk with her father in the gardens, Isabelle had taken him to bed, assuring him she would not leave until she had wished him good-bye, therefore they would have breakfast and the midday meal. He was in tears as Belle led him up the stairs, but despite his pleas she simply reassured him she would return whenever she could.
Lady Nicole, Sir Maxwell and young Ben were left in the drawing room while the next part of the plan came into being.
The older sisters slipped into the kitchen, an act which surprised the staff for they never came there. Both muttered some thanks for the fine meals since Belle’s return (no one minded for they all loved the young mistress and were glad to welcome her home again). Then, when they were unseen, the pair found what they came for and just as quickly left. They stopped long enough to tell the others the mission was successful, then hurried to Gwyneth’s chamber.
“Rub!” Julia insisted, slicing the onion in half before placing hers in a piece of cloth. “We need all this to assist in our pretense or else we’ll never succeed.”
“Under the eyes should be enough.” She obliged her sister by applying it just there. “And around the cheeks perhaps. Yes…that will work. Not in your eyes or they may burn.”
“This is dreadful and if I can smell it, Julia, then Belle will, too.”
Julia sighed. “She is too stupid to notice. Besides, all the events of the day have upset her so she won’t be thinking her clearest. Benjamin’s idea isn’t all that silly and we’re not going to use the entire thing, so relax. Relax and you rub mine.” Her eyes began to water. “Oooo…charming! Go on…go on….I’ll get us fresh handkerchiefs…”
“And we absolutely have to wash our hands! Oh ewww….I never knew onions had such a reek to them!”
Moments later, they were before the door to their sister’s room and after composing themselves, they burst in without knocking. The girl was sitting at the desk that had once belonged to their mother, and by candlelight was writing something, but on hearing the footsteps, she immediately rose, her surprise quite evident.
“Isabelle!” Julia exclaimed. “Isabelle…we are so sorry to disturb you but…”
“No…that’s alright,” Belle replied, studying her siblings’ tearfulness. “What’s…”
“We were downstairs…” Gwyneth began.
“And we began to reminisce…about the days when we were truly a family…”
“When Mama was still alive…”
“And we realized…we realized…” Julia released a dramatic sob. “Oh my God….Oh my God….Isabelle…Belle…you cannot leave us!”
The younger girl’s eyes widened. “What?”
“You mustn’t go!”
Gwyneth suddenly flung herself at Isabelle’s feet. “Belle…oh God…stay with us! Stay with us!”
“I don’t…” Belle tried to say, but the display was so shocking she could barely think.
Julia was shaking as she spoke. “I…I…I know…I know we have been unfair to you. We have often treated you little better than a serving girl…or a…a…maid…”
“Which would have our poor dear mother turning in her grave. I told Julia we would burn for behaving as we have.”
“My God…you’re crying,” Belle whispered.
“Mama told us to care for you because you were our little sister…motherless like us, yes…but you were the little one…and look at this! Look at what we have done to hurt you,” Julia almost screamed, “and the thought of losing you made us realize just how much we love you!”
Now it was Gwyneth’s turn to bawl, her pale face puffy as she finally managed to stand upright again. “If the Beast loves you, he won’t mind if you stay a little longer.”
“Stay another week!”
Isabelle shook her head. “It…I’m…sorry but…it’s…it’s not possible.”
“Do you want us to die of heartbreak? Gwyneth…she wants to kill us. She wants to kill us and Father.”
The mention of her parent made Belle’s body tighten. “Father? What about Father?”
“Why do you think he was attempting to make arrangements with Sir Maxwell?” Julia sniffled. “Why do you think he wishes to share his life with Lady Nicole, to have some female companionship now? We fear he has not much longer to live and it is one of his last desires…”
“Father? He didn’t tell me…” Isabelle stammered.
“No Belle…no he would not,” Gwyneth added, playing right along with Julia’s impromptu declaration. “Just the thought of seeing you again…I believe it added fresh life to him.”
“We have been awful. Awful as daughters…awful as your sisters.”
“Ben would have come to, but…for him to display such emotions before you…”
“However he is distraught. Distraught! But he feared you’d think him less of a man if he wept before you.”
Belle was still in shock. “Ben?”
Gwyneth nodded. “And we knew Father would not beg you again so we have come in his stead.”
Julia opened her arms. “Please stay another week!”
“Stay with us, Belle….Stay with us!”
Belle turned away, unable to look at them. “I can’t.”
Julia ran to her, hoping the smell was not overwhelming, but since Belle was about to let the feelings of the moment affect her, it would hopefully make it unnoticeable. “Don’t be cruel to us Belle, although we deserve it! Stay!”
“Oh Julia…Julia,” Isabelle whispered.
Gwyneth almost smiled, then hid her face again. “Julia said to me, ‘We have our dear Isabelle back again and we should not let her leave us. I shall die if she leaves!'”
“Oh God…” Isabelle suddenly appeared exhausted. “Oh God…please don’t tempt me.”
“Belle!” Gwyneth said. “Belle, please!”
“Please…please…don’t abandon us tomorrow. Tell the Beast it was our fault. That we begged to save our family and what we could have. That we only wished to be a true family before it was too late.”
“But…” Belle could already feel her resolve melting at the sight of her sisters. She did not want to trust them, but there was something…”But…he…he will die…”
Gwyneth shook her head. “He won’t die, Belle. He won’t die. He only wants you back with him and considering how you are, my dear, I cannot say I blame him.”
“Please say you’ll stay!” Julia begged, turning from the others in false despair. Her eyebrows rose for there on the table – amidst papers and other items – was the golden key, the very one the girl had spoken of in secret. Seizing the opportunity, Julia snatched it while no one was looking, tucking it into her bodice.
Belle was trembling, sighing. “I…I did not realize…I did not know you felt this way.”
“Then you’ll consider it?” Julia asked and on seeing the girl’s slight nod took that as a ‘yes.’ “Oh my God…Oh my God…Did you see that Gwyneth?” Both of them embraced her at the same time. “You’re an angel, our Isabelle. Truly an angel.”
Gwyneth kissed her on the forehead. “We are so happy! So happy!”
But the words only caused Isabelle to throw herself on her bed. After giving her one more quick embrace, the older sisters left the room, Julia calling out one final “I’m so happy” as the door was shut. The second she did, she eased an ear against it. “She’s crying!” she said softly, nearly laughing. “I suppose she’s worried about her ‘poor’ Beast.”
“You were right. She is stupid.” The two moved away.
“So she’ll stay behind, we’ll marry her off to Sir Maxwell and be rid of her. Then kill the Beast and share all the treasure!”
“Lovely…and you, you stink!”
Julia stuck out her tongue as they giggled. “We can stop at my room and wash our faces before we return downstairs. I know one thing…I should win an award for the performance I just gave.”
“You? What about me! I thought I should be on the stage.”
“Ooooo…how positively scandalous, but perhaps I should join you. Think of the men that would worship us and fall at our feet.”
“Even more than now.”
“Perhaps even the Prince of Wales himself.”
Ben almost fell over his long legs when his sisters entered the drawing room, springing up from his chair as Sir Maxwell also stood. Lady Nicole remained where she was, looking even more elegant than usual.
“Well?!” the Hewitt heir asked.
Julia stuck her nose into the air. “Well? Well what?”
“Is she staying?”
Gwyneth looked pleased with herself. “She’s staying.”
“You should have seen us. I feel we both have a future on the stage.”
“Do you think your dear Matthew might…”
Ben’s features blanched at the name of his former best friend. “No…Matthew cannot…But Isabelle…She will remain with us you say?”
“She’s in her room now,” Julia told them, swirling about the skirts of her gown as she haughtily strolled to an empty chair. “She’s crying,” she mocked.
“Who is she crying…?” Winterbottom started to say but then recovered with “Oh! Oh! The Beast. She’s crying for It?”
“We have made her feel so guilty,” Gwyneth explained, appearing to be sad over the prospect but her gleaming eyes brought a lie to that. “She thinks Father is terribly, terribly ill. She believes us sorry for our treatment of her.”
“And of course staying means hurting her Beast,” Julia added.
Sir Maxwell grunted. “If It is to die then let It…else I’ll run my sword through It at any rate.”
Ben suddenly remembered he had forgotten something important. “Did you get the key?”
Julia turned, reaching into her bodice to remove the item, then facing the group again. She opened her hand so they all could see. “Look!”
“Give it to me!” Ben demanded, reaching for it, but Julia put her hand behind her back and smiled triumphantly.
“I shall keep close watch over it,” Julia declared.
Gwyneth nodded. “And as much as we love you, dear brother, it’s solid gold and who knows what you might do with it if you decide to go gambling tonight.”
Ben started to protest but his mouth closed. “True.”
Julia looked at her good friend. “Nicole…are you not thrilled? Our plan is going along as we intended.”
“Mmm…yes, yes it is.” She was tugging at her lower lip with her teeth, her features preoccupied.
‘You are unhappy? We’ve done everything we agreed to.”
“Oh….Oh…Julia…no…I’m not unhappy. I’m surprised it has gone this well but…there are several other matters.”
Gwyneth was disappointed. “There are?”
“Sir Benjamin is quite thrilled to have young Isabelle back in his home, but I have listened to him during the last few days. I am still not convinced he will be totally supportive in us killing the Beast.”
“Although he came face-to-face with It and It threatened to murder him?” Winterbottom roared.
“He is beginning to think like Belle,” Lady Nicole explained. “She is convincing him more and more that the creature is not the monster he met, therefore I am noticing…hesitancy on his part. I spoke to him after your offer to her this morning, Sir Maxwell. He had no idea Isabelle would react as she did and once she seemed to disapprove, he wavers. He said being ruthless in business was one thing. To be ruthless to a child he loved was quite another.”
Damn Winterbottom thought. The old man had seemed ready to consign Isabelle to his charge and now even that might not come to pass. The very idea frustrated him. He had such plans for her, beginning even before the wedding night: to break her, train her, transform the goodness of her soul into something more agreeable to his predilections.
“And he is a most honorable man,” Nicole continued. “He may tell Belle to remain, but the more she says it will kill the Beast…”
“Good!” Benjamin and Winterbottom both declared.
Lady Nicole coughed. “The more she says it will kill the Beast for her not to return, then the more he will weaken on her behalf. He would almost rather lose her again than see her break her oath.”
Young Ben rolled his eyes. He had no idea why his father – or his silly sister for that matter – placed such high regard on honor.
Julia shook her head. “So are you thinking he might bar us from what we are doing?”
“There is a good chance he will object, yes. Why do you think I have cautioned not mentioning this to him?”
“So what should we do?” Julia asked the question that was going through all their minds.
Ben leaned towards his good friend. “Incredible. Typical. Typical of women. They have not asked our opinion regarding any of this.”
Winterbottom smiled. “Lady Nicole has a good head. I am willing to trust her implicitly.”
Ben responded with ‘Humph’ and angrily crossed his arms.
Nicole rapped at both arms of the chair, her mind plotting. “We simply need to stay a few steps ahead of Isabelle and her Beast…and Sir Benjamin too for that matter. I can take care of him. He’s still most trusting of me. And we have the key. When the time comes we shall all go in force, if Sir Maxwell and Benjamin remain in agreement with us.”
Ben groaned, frustrated. “Go? Go how? Go where?”
“To the Beast’s castle…and do not worry,” Lady Nicole answered as she sat back in her chair. “I will find a way for us.”