Read Devastation: A Beauty and the Beast Novel Online

Authors: MJ Haag

Tags: #love, #classics, #fairy tale, #beauty and the beast, #beastly tales

Devastation: A Beauty and the Beast Novel (5 page)

“How old are you?” I asked. She seemed so
young to be thinking of marriage.

“I was seventeen when I was enchanted. So, I
must be sixty-seven now,” she said with a laugh.

I smiled but said nothing. Even if she
hadn’t been enchanted, she wasn’t too young. And neither was I. My
seventeenth birthday was not far away. So much had happened so
quickly that I felt much older in many ways. Still, marriage...I
wasn’t sure I would ever be ready for that. Yet, most girls my age
were already planning weddings. If a girl saw eighteen unwed, it
usually meant she had no hope of marrying. Out of love, my father
had held on to us far past when he should have. I wondered what my
life would have been like if he’d wed us off sooner.

Egrit didn’t say anything as the silence
stretched. We passed the newly planted fields and crossed many more
that still needed attention.

When we reached the wall, I looked up at the
tree.

“Can you climb?”

Egrit snorted. “I was a tree, living among
trees for fifty years. I can climb.”

“Toss your boots over first. You’ll want to
put them on once we reach the other side.”

We sat on the grass to unlace our boots. In
no time, we were up the tree and climbing down the other side of
the wall. The wind on my face and rocks under my hands steadied me
and quieted some of the unrest that had been building for days.

We spent the morning by the stream in the
same spot where the beast had laid me back on the banks. My mind
dwelled on the memory, and Egrit, sensing my pensive mood, left me
to my thoughts.

In truth, I wanted the beast to return, and
it shamed me. He’d spent so many years punished for his youthful
pride and arrogance. Yet, I missed the beast’s unpredictable moods,
zealous attention, and his comforting presence.

My feelings toward Lord Ruhall were more
undecided. He said Rose watched him still, judging his actions as
Lord. I watched him, too. He left the maids alone and attended to
estate business. His only overture to a female had been to me when
he entered my room the first night I had returned. But, he’d done
nothing more than lay beside me.

During the time we had spent together
clearing the guest rooms, his watchful, aloof attitude had remained
consistent with the man who’d stood in the doorway and watched the
baker’s thankfully pathetic attempts to compromise me. Had it been
the beast, I knew without a doubt he would have charged into the
room and ripped the baker from me. The enchantress wouldn’t have
been able to hold the beast back.

Egrit’s excited squeal pulled me from my
musings.

“What do I do?” she cried, holding the pole
tight, fighting the fish.

I wished I could ask her the same. Instead,
I moved to help her. She was thrilled at her first catch and swore
she would take her man fishing if I would allow them the use of the
poles. We stayed on the banks until six fat fish decorated the
string. Our stomachs begged for food, and we gathered our poles to
head back.

We rounded the estate before the sun hit its
zenith and entered an empty kitchen. The butcher block waited,
clean and empty, which I found unusual; one of the men typically
returned with something by now. I laid the fish out, content to let
the cooks clean them.

From somewhere in the manor, I heard a
familiar, raised voice. Both Egrit and I shared a worried look
before we hurried down the hall.

“Then look again,” Lord Ruhall roared at the
staff, who stood in line before him.

He spun at the sound of our steps. His red,
angry face surprised me as our gazes met.

“Where have you been?” he asked, stalking
toward me.

Egrit made a move to step in front of me,
but I firmly grabbed her wrist and held her back.

“You wish to speak with me, my Lord?” I
emphasized his title, trying to remind him he was no longer the
beast, though his current tone and the prowling steps he took did
remind me of the dear creature.

“I asked where you were.” Despite his very
human form, he growled.

Ridiculously, I almost smiled that he
thought to intimidate me.

“Thank you for asking, my Lord
.
I
shall certainly accompany you to your study to explain.”

His eyes narrowed. He cocked his head to the
side and studied me for a moment before waving for me to lead the
way. I gave a gracious nod and leisurely moved past him. The
servants all watched me with worry and trepidation. I stopped
before the head cook, giving her a calm smile.

“There are several trout on the block. They
still need cleaning.”

She frowned but nodded slowly before she
glanced at the man who impatiently waited just a step away.

“Thank you,” I said.

He followed me through the halls, the angry
click of his shoes puzzling me. I sincerely doubted he minded that
Egrit and I had taken a morning from cleaning when we’d dedicated
so many days to the task already. What then had made him so
angry?

I walked through the study door and stopped
in the middle of the room, preferring not to sit just in case I
needed to leave quickly. The door closed. He walked around me and
stood behind his desk.

“Well?” he said.

“We went fishing. I would think that obvious
after telling the cook about the trout,” I said with an arched
brow.

His face, which had recovered its natural
color, flushed again.

“My Lord, Egrit and I have worked tirelessly
since I arrived. My back needed a rest days ago. Egrit would never
complain, but I’m sure hers did as well. Certainly you cannot
begrudge us a morning to relax. It wasn’t a completely idle
activity either; we brought back fish.”

He looked heavenward.

“Fish.” His regard settled on me once more.
“You think this is about you fishing?” He rubbed a hand over his
face.

“I honestly have no idea what would cause
you, the Liege Lord
,
to start yelling at the staff in a most
unbecoming manner and then to turn on me as soon as I walk into the
room, in front of an already shocked staff
,”
I said with
annoyance. “You said Rose is watching you. What do you think she
made of such beastly behavior?”

He had the grace to cringe. “I was less
concerned about her than I was about you when I woke to find you
missing.”

“First, how did you know I was missing
unless you tried to enter my room,” I said in a harsh whisper. He
snarled in return. “Second, my absence should not concern you. You
hired my father, not me, if I recall. I should be free to move
about as I please. I am under no obligation to stay locked in my
room any longer. And don’t even think about taking Egrit to task
for some idle time. You owe her that and much more.”

He opened his mouth, no doubt to shout back
at me, when the door burst open. My father stood there looking
flustered and slightly embarrassed.

“You summoned me, my Lord?”

Behind him, I caught sight of Egrit leaving
the library.

“Father, you are just in time,” I said,
calming myself. “The boorish man behind the desk has spent too many
years without the counsel of his father. Perhaps you can still help
him despite his dotage.”

My father’s brows rose, and his gaze darted
to Lord Ruhall, who watched me with a clenched jaw. I turned away
from both men and stormed out the door.

“She gets her stubbornness from me and her
intelligence from her mother,” my father said.

His words made me pause in the library, just
out of sight. I would argue that I had his intelligence.

“Books, the written word, captivate me. But
I forgot them all when my wife first spoke to me. We were wed
twelve years before she passed. I learned a few things in those
years. When a woman leaves a room in a storm, best wait till the
thunder fades before you walk out lest you risk being struck by
lightning. Or worse, a frying pan.”

Lord Ruhall said something too quietly for
me to hear. With a smile, I left him to my father’s sage
advice.

Chapter 3

Just outside the library, the entire staff
waited. Egrit flashed me a relieved smile.

“All is well,” I assured them. “Mrs. Wimbly,
the fish would be an excellent midday meal if there’s time.” It
would also serve as a reminder to Lord Ruhall.

“Egrit, you should watch how they are
cleaned if you plan on fishing again in the future.”

Egrit nodded and, with a smile, left with
the frowning cook. The rest of the staff seemed reluctant to
leave.

“Swiftly, how are the repairs on the stables
coming along?”

“I would be happy to show you,” he said. Mr.
Crow opened the door for us. The other men followed.

* * * *

Swiftly’s explanation of the repairs claimed
my attention for almost an hour. I hadn’t yet read anything about
building but planned to in the future. The calculations needed to
brace a structure’s roof correctly astounded me.

My father caught me just as I entered
through the main doors.

“Stop provoking the Lord. As you reminded
him, he is the Liege Lord,” he said.

“Father, truly, my intent wasn’t to provoke
him when I left this morning. I only wanted some peace and
relaxation. Even with his help carrying the heavy items, I still
think I might start walking with a stoop soon.”

“Daughter, for such an astute girl, your
ability to observe and learn concerns me,” he said with a
frown.

“How so?” I tried to think of what I might
have done to upset him.

“Think of the last time you disappeared from
his manor, daughter. You worried him.”

My mouth popped open, and I struggled with
how I felt about what Father was hinting at. Lord Ruhall, the cold
man, cared if I disappeared? No, not me, but two people under his
protection.

“Mrs. Wimbly announced the meal is ready.
I’ll fetch the tray.” With a shake of his head, my father walked
toward the kitchen.

That left me to face Lord Ruhall alone while
we waited for Father. It sat wrong that I needed to apologize for
an idle day of fishing. With slow steps, I made my way to the
study. Lord Ruhall’s bent head did not lift when I entered. He
continued to read from the open book before him.

His hand rubbed his forehead, and his hair
sprouted about in disarray. The set of his shoulders, tense and
pushed back, told me enough. He was still angry with me.

Ignoring the chairs my father and I usually
took, I walked around the desk and rested a hand on his jacketed
shoulder to gain the attention I knew he wouldn’t otherwise give.
He sighed and dropped his hand. Leaning back into his chair,
effectively removing my touch, he met my gaze.

“I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to concern
you.”

He closed his eyes, not saying anything.

“We were safe. The baker’s gone.” To me, he
and Tennen were the only ones that posed a real threat, and Tennen
wouldn’t have tried anything with Egrit beside me.

Alec snorted and opened his eyes to glare at
me.

“Safe? You think the baker is the only man
to look at you with lust?”

I refrained from naming him as one of the
men to do so. But, no, it hadn’t been him. It had been the beast,
my sweet Alec.

“Benella,” he said, leaning forward. A noise
from the door stopped him from reaching for me. My father cleared
his throat and moved to the desk with the tray.

“Fish,” he announced.

“Of course,” Lord Ruhall murmured, looking
at me with a shake of his head. “Next time you’d care to fish,
please take Swiftly with you and leave word.”

I nodded and moved to my usual chair, ready
to discuss estate affairs.

* * * *

Carrying the tray to the kitchen, I found
the cooks at the table, enjoying idle conversation. The assistant
cook caught sight of me and quickly stood. I smiled a greeting and
set the dirty dishes on the empty butcher block.

“No game today?” I asked as the assistant
cook moved around me to start wash water.

“No,” Mrs. Wimbly answered. “The hands were
out looking for you.”

“Not my best decision,” I said with a
cringe.

She continued to scowl at me. So, I tried
changing the subject after a moment of silence.

“Have you explored the cold storage
yet?”

“When we first arrived. There’s still ice in
it from the winter so we’ve been putting the extra goat milk
there.”

“Is there cream?” I asked excitedly. I’d
read a bit about making butter and thought the process sounded
interesting. The cost of butter being too high, it wasn’t something
Bryn used. Lard was less expensive and easier to obtain.

After a moment, Mrs. Wimbly nodded.

“Might we make butter?”

She gave me an odd look before
answering.

“If there’s time. There are several buckets
still in cold storage. Enough for a bit of butter.”

“How long does the milk stay good?” I
asked.

“We’ve thrown out several already that went
sour.”

The waste brought to mind all the times my
family had dined on fresh goat’s milk and nothing else while living
in Konrall.

“Let’s skim the cream we need and pour
what’s left in a large barrel to be taken to the Water. There are
people there who could use the surplus instead of wasting it,” I
said.

Her expression grew more indignant as I
spoke, and I wondered at the cause. I seemed to have acquired a
knack for upsetting those around me.

“I’ll need to check with Lord Ruhall,” she
said.

“Of course,” I agreed. I didn’t think he
would disagree with my plan, though. “Do you know how to make
cheese?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said as she gave me a hard
look.

“I meant no disrespect to your skills,” I
quickly assured her. “I was only wondering if we should do so here
or perhaps trade a portion of the milk to the cheese maker in the
Water for premade cheese.” I tilted my head. “What do you think is
the best use of your time? Storing food for winter or cheese
making?”

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