The older sisters did not make an appearance downstairs until many hours later, when the hour of the banquet in Isabelle’s honor was announced to them. For the first time in their lives when it came to something related to their youngest sibling, they attempted to be on time, their plan for ingratiating themselves already at work. But upon arriving on the first floor, they realized they were not the only ones intending to make the girl’s return as family-oriented as possible for there at the drawing room doors were Lady Nicole and Benjamin.
“What is…?” Gwyneth started to say, but she was immediately hushed.
“Belle’s inside with Father,” young Ben whispered. “She’s telling him matters I doubt she’ll repeat before us.”
“Oh…let us too,” Julia said. She and Gwyneth tipped over to the others, everyone become stone still as they listened.
The door was parted just enough that they would not be blatantly obvious, but also so the conversation could be properly heard. Sir Benjamin was relaxing in his favorite chair and Isabelle was sitting on a cushioned footrest which had been pulled to one side so she might talk. Fortunately for the little group in the hall, the quiet voices were clear.
“So he gave me the key to all his treasures…” Belle was telling her father.
“Treasure?” Ben gasped.
“Key?” Julia asked.
“Shhhh…” Gwyneth said, pressing her ear even nearer the tiny gap between the thick wood doors.
Belle was still speaking. “He trusts me implicitly, Father. I would be the monster if I did not return to him.”
“You are no monster, dearest girl,” the merchant replied, smiling and smoothing her hair from the forehead to the crown of her head. Belle had changed into a simpler evening gown so that once more she would not outshine her siblings or future stepmother, but even Sir Benjamin had to admit the ploy no longer worked. Once his daughter returned as she had that morning, there would be no going back to the old days, no matter how hard she tried.
“But that is to be betwixt us, Father. I am trusting you with that confidence.”
“You have my word. I shall tell no one, not your brother, your sisters or Lady Nicole.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“So the servants? I never saw any while I was there. Yet I was served. Are there many?”
Belle shrugged as she smiled. “I do not know….My life has been the same as yours that night you took shelter. Invisible hands serve me…”
“My God! They are invisible then?”
The girl nodded. “Yes Father they are. I only know they are brought about by the magic surrounding his world.”
“Witchcraft again,” Gwyneth muttered.
“They serve me, groom me, prepare my wardrobe and dress me, arrange my hair, open and close the doors…”
The foursome in the hall gawked through the opening, the logic of their minds telling them Isabelle had gone insane and was lying about her disappearance, and another part telling them that if this was true, they wanted to partake in this fate.
“I never see anyone…but him.”
“And you are not lonely? I cannot imagine you in that enormous castle, all alone, waiting for It to appear.”
“Him, Father – I wait for him…not It,” she gently scolded, smiling on seeing her parent sigh and roll his eyes before chuckling.
“Then waiting for him to appear,” he said indulgently, hearing the protectiveness in his daughter’s rejoinder. “Oh Isabelle…there are times you are so sympathetic. But answer me, my dear…are you not lonely?”
“I am, at times – I cannot deny that, but more and more we see one another during the day and not only in the evening, so the loneliness I knew in the beginning has lessened. And you will not believe the many things I have discovered when I am waiting…” and she briefly described the numerous wonders, from the gardens and library to the areas that enabled her to ‘visit’ lands outside their own. She was so enthusiastic, Sir Benjamin sat back in his chair, nearly shrinking into the plain burgundy fabric.
“Ah Belle…then this means you will go back to him.”
“I must, Father, I promised him. The Beast set me free for one week. If I do not return, he will die of heartbreak.”
“Heartbreak?” the four conspirators whispered, then shushed each other afterwards.
Sir Benjamin looked aghast. “Heartbreak, Belle?! You speak as though he was human.”
“He is more human than you can imagine. I would never have believed that when I first went to him, but now…all this time with him has made a difference.”
A loud knock sounded at the front door and – shaking off their startled reactions — the Hewitt sisters, young Benjamin and Lady Nicole all stood up straight, immediately striking the most casual of positions as if they had only just arrived in the passageway. Moments later, the head butler and the footmen entered the foyer. Both saw the four lurkers but said nothing, only giving them the slightest acknowledgement by a polite bowing of their heads. The men the took their places on the interior side of the entrance, and the enormous door was opened to permit Winterbottom to enter.
“Sir Maxwell!” Julia greeted, springing forward and holding out one hand so he might kiss the back of it. “So wonderful you could join us this evening to welcome my sister home.”
The servants – without being noticed – rolled their eyes in detestation.
“It is with the greatest pleasure I join all of you this evening, Lady Roberts,” he said, using her most recent married title and name. Then his voice dropped and he said – out of the servants’ hearing for he knew them to be loyal to Isabelle and her father – “Have you learned anything?”
“Indeed we have.” Julia linked arms with him, guiding him to the others as she spoke in more normal tones. “Father is in the drawing room with Isabelle.”
“Ah…Miss Gwyneth….Lady Nicole! And Benjamin – love the waistcoat!”
“Do you now? I was hoping someone would notice.”
“You are in most excellent spirits, sir,” Lady Nicole told him, taking his other arm. “I have a feeling this will be a most enlightening evening.” The footman had already maneuvered to the drawing room doors, and on opening them, Nicole brightly called out, “See who we have here, Sir Benjamin! Isabelle dear…greet our guest, will you? Sir Maxwell has returned to celebrate your miraculous return.”
Isabelle stood, dipped a graceful curtsy and – eyes discreetly downcast so she would not have to look directly into the ruddy face – eased near him, fighting back the sickness in her stomach when the man took her right hand, pressing his thick, moist lips against it. His thumb traced an inconspicuous line over her palm as though to flirt, but she quickly withdrew it, swearing to herself that she would scrub it clean before that sat down for supper or she would not be able to make it through the evening.
“You are a lovely sight yet again, Miss Isabelle,” he grunted, already out of breath from the short waddle across the room. “I am…thrilled I could pay your family yet another visit today. Another advantage to living so nearby.”
“I am glad you could come, Sir Maxwell,” Isabelle replied while thinking God forgive me before I choke on my words
Sir Benjamin was already on his feet, walking to a heavy table on which there were a number of varied size bottles and decanters. “I have always said that when a man has good friends and guests in his home, he should pour the welcoming drinks and tonight is not an exception. Let me do the honors….”
Two painful hours later – at least as far as enduring the company of her siblings and Winterbottom – Isabelle excused herself from the table and with Sir Benjamin at her side, escorted her parent on a walk in the gardens before the merchant would retire. The moment they departed the room, the others relaxed, becoming their normal selves again.
“We shall excuse ourselves momentarily,” Julia told them, “so the gentlemen may enjoy their port and cheroots, but I must ask: do we seem to have made any progress in our plans?”
“I believe so,” Gwyneth said satisfactorily, beaming to herself. “I thought myself quite charming.”
“And you were, dear sister,” Julia praised her.
“But do you believe Isabelle was convinced?” young Ben pondered. “I…I…mean…I mean…that we love her and have missed her and desire her to stay.”
“I simply pray we were not too…well…there is such a thing as being so kind it draws suspicions,” Lady Nicole declared. “I saw no skepticism from her…”
“Although she may be a most consummate actress, thanks to that Creature,” Julia admitted for they were seeing an entirely new side to Isabelle: confidence, outspokenness.
“No, no, I believe her fooled,” Gwyneth said. “Belle has never been particularly sharp.”
Winterbottom drummed his belly. “I’m afraid I nearly ruined it all by making so many inquiries.”
“Oh no Sir Maxwell, no,” Nicole soothed him. “You asked about matters we need answers to, so those were very crucial. You were wonderful.”
“It was dear Ben who nearly spoiled it all,” Gwyneth pouted.
“Me?” Ben took another gulp from his goblet. “What did I say?”
“Well sweetheart…” Julia consoled him, “you should not have chuckled or joked at Sir Maxwell’s questions or Belle’s answers.”
Slamming the goblet on the nearest side table, Ben slid down in his seat, crossed his arms and moped. “Humph. He asked if the Beast spoke like a human being…”
“And you wondered whether Isabelle had learned the language of the animals,” Nicole sighed.
“Also…it did not help our cause when you asked whether he crawled on all fours. You can tell the girl is obviously besotted by her Beast.”
At the words ‘her Beast‘ the Hewitt sisters giggled and whispered in each other’s ears, making rude comments when they did.
“Well what about her response when I asked what he drank and what he ate?” Ben declared. “She stared at me as if I was a half-wit.”
“Again…” and with that one word, the others could tell Lady Nicole was being charming but her patience was running thin, “you must remember she is smitten with this creature, Ben, and finds his charms better company than ours.”
“True, true,” Julia chimed.
“Could you believe what she said?” and Gwyneth mocked her sister’s tone. “‘Sometimes I help him drink – and I know he’ll never eat me.'”
“Foolish little…” Ben mumbled, the obscenity mouthed but not said.
“Your sister is the most tenderhearted of women, Benjamin,” Sir Maxwell told him, the juices from an apple he munched dripping onto his neckerchief. “She does not have the wit and great beauty of your sisters and Lady Nicole of course, but…there are times when a gentleman enjoys the…” He bit his tongue before he said something too salacious.
“Well…” he continued, “such fragility often needs the touch of a master. All of you have protected her for so long that she is a babe…a babe in the woods without the necessary experiences. Naturally this Beast-man has deceived her and preyed on her therefore she needs a…sweet touch.”
Nicole beamed. “And I am more than certain you will provide her with all she requires. I intend to speak with Sir Benjamin on the morrow, to remind him of what a friend you have been during his times of trouble, to remind him of the influence you possess in both Parliament and the ton. I believe he will see the advantages.”
Julia popped a ripe grape into her mouth. “He loves the girl – why I do not know…but when we present your claim, he will act as the man of business he is and as the patriarch of this family. Isabelle will do as she is told.”
“Of course I do not desire to force her,” Winterbottom said. “She should wed me of her own free will.” Although the word ‘force’ nearly caused him to hyperventilate at the thought of a helpless Isabelle – alone, vulnerable and left to his desires.
“She will do what is best for this family, Sir Maxwell,” Gwyneth added.
“She’s not going back to some half-man, half-monster to satisfy some damn oath she made!” Ben drunkenly exclaimed. “Father will do anything he can to prevent that. She’s going to stay right here where she belongs…and she’s going to marry you, Winter, and consider herself a fortunate a gentleman like you even wants her as his bride!”
Sir Maxwell suddenly stood, rocking slightly from side to side, but maintaining his balance. “Well…you will be glad to know that I have come to a decision!” The others paid close attention. “The idea of Miss Isabelle returning to that Beast by his deadline is intolerable. In fact, the idea of Miss Isabelle returning to that Beast under any circumstances is intolerable! We must slay it once and for all and rid the world of his curse.”
There was silence. Gwyneth was grinning; Julia was surprised at first, then smiled with pride. Ben’s mouth was open but bloodlust was in his eyes. Lady Nicole gawked with the excitement of the fair maiden being rescued from the dragon.
“And take his treasure!” Ben was champing at the bit, but grew somber. “But do you appreciate the power of his magic?”
“Posh! I do not believe in magic, Benjamin! I am sure the monster hypnotizes Belle and makes her believe anything he wants her to.”
“She doubtless hypnotizes him so he thinks her a great beauty,” Gwyneth snickered. “But we’ve heard her speak of his powers when she thought she and Father alone. We heard Father too when he returned,” Ben mused. “There are too many unanswered questions and that scares me.”
But Lady Nicole was now standing, decisiveness on her lovely face. “Sir Maxwell must have a plan or he would not make such a declaration.”
“I do indeed, my lady…for when it comes to rescuing Miss Isabelle, no magic power in the world could frighten me. Anyway…if we are to have what is his, we have no choice, so don’t be ridiculous, Benjamin. You are a man after all! You hunt with the best of us. So behave like one, for the honor of your sister, my future bride, and for what will soon be ours if we play our cards right.” He was mesmerizing as he spun his idea for the gullible audience. “Lady Nicole, Lady Julia…Miss Gwyneth…continue to butter her up. Play the concerned mother, Lady Nicole, the woman who didn’t give birth to her, but is still only thinking of her dear little daughter. You two – play the sweet adoring sisters who will die of grief if she departs you again.” The three women eagerly nodded. “You! Ben! Be her protective brother. Overburden her with her guilty feelings of turning her back on her father for the Beast….Think of the glories we will have once we have stopped Miss Isabelle from leaving.”
“Riches to make all of them pea-green with envy,” Julia whispered. “We would become the most eligible women in England.”
“And by what miracle shall you find this Beast in order to slay it?” Lady Nicole asked, reaching to take Sir Maxwell by the hands. Not even the marriage bed had held as much excitement as she was experiencing listening to Winterbottom’s argument. “We cannot waste any advantage sir, and you seem to have this well thought out for us.”
“It will be simple, my lady,” Winterbottom leered. “I’ll question Miss Isabelle and find out her secrets. I will make her trust me and know me as the most honest of men.”