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 (9 page)

As his gaze swept over my face, the rest of
the anger faded. Another expression took hold. Tenderness. I
couldn’t call it anything else. My stomach flipped, and my cheeks
warmed in response.

“Of course,” he said. “Tell me what needs to
be done.”

I straightened, putting distance between
us.

“Please speak with your teacher and inform
him he will have students starting tomorrow. There are seven aged
between four and twelve. Most cannot read. He should start teaching
after they’ve eaten. The children are not to be given work during
their schooling hours, and Mrs. Palant’s children aren’t to be
given work by anyone other than their mother.

“Also, if possible, we need three of the
five men to focus on hunting and fishing. We need a larger quantity
of game to store in the next few weeks.”

Unable to maintain eye contact any longer, I
cleared my throat, and met my father’s gaze.

“Father, I need you to work with Mr. Crow
and determine a guest list from Konrall and the Water. Mr. Crow
said that, in the past, they filled the ballroom. I’d like to be
conservative with the invitations while still meeting Rose’s
requirements. Next year, we can pack the room. As soon as you have
a count, please let me know.”

Chapter 5

The daunting task of cleaning loomed before
me. Even with the extra help, cleaning the ballroom, parlors,
dining room, and main sitting rooms before the feast would be
difficult. But not impossible. Since Egrit, Mrs. Palant, and the
children would remain occupied with airing the attic until after
dinner, I meant to make some progress in the ballroom yet that
day.

In the laundry, I filled several of the
large, empty vats and started a fire in the pit under the first
one. Everything in the ballroom and parlors needed a dusting and a
washing. Hot water would make the task easier.

Mrs. Wimbly’s voice reached me as I stepped
into the hall.

“Seven more mouths to feed and she
influenced Lord Ruhall to dismiss one of my staff? What is that
woman thinking?”

I quickly moved away. Her tasks, to keep us
fed and to store enough food for the feast and the winter, would
not be easy. Yet, we couldn’t afford more help for her. I hoped we
wouldn’t find ourselves missing a head cook.

In the ballroom, I stopped to look around
and plan. The room needed more light to clean it properly. I
checked the parlors and found the same problem. Though I was
tempted to yank the curtains open, I did not. They were filthy like
everything else and needed to be removed. I stared up at the hooks
that held the drapes to the runner above the window.

“Need help?” Alec’s quiet voice startled me.
I turned and found him just behind me, scowling up at the
hooks.

“The curtains here and in the ballroom need
to be removed, beaten, and washed.”

“Are you sure they will survive that?” He
reached around me and plucked at the dust covered fabric. His arm
brushed against mine, sending a tingle of awareness through me.

I moved away and studied the material.

“I hope so.” The estate couldn’t afford to
replace them and winter without them would be chilly.

“I’ll have one of the men come in with a
ladder and remove them after sundown. Perhaps you can join me for
dinner, and we can discuss the details of what you plan.”

“Certainly. Father can join us and share his
progress on the guest list.”

He gave a small sigh before he left the
room.

I had an hour at least until dinner. Best to
put the time to use.

* * * *

“He sent me looking for you,” Egrit said
from the door. Amusement laced her voice.

I straightened, and my spine made a loud
cracking sound. The furniture of the first parlor now sat in the
ballroom. It had taken much effort to pull the pieces out, and more
effort still to roll up the large rug that dominated the space.

“I think he expects you to dine with him,”
she said.

“Yes. Of course.” I brushed my hands on my
skirts. “Are Mrs. Palant and the children settled in?”

“Yes. And fed.” Amusement changed to barely
contained laughter. “Are you going like that?”

Looking down at myself, I saw dust had made
a muddle of my skirts. My sleeves, though rolled back, were dingy,
and my bodice had finger streaks. I couldn’t remember touching my
bodice.

“I’m afraid I am. I plan to return here as
soon as I finish meeting with Lord Ruhall. I have resolved to keep
cleaning until I lose the light.”

“Hmm,” she said, eyeing the room.

I saw doubt in her gaze. In the time I’d
spent in the room, I’d made no progress actually cleaning it, just
emptying it.

I wiped away a stray strand of hair from my
face as I moved toward Egrit. While I knew I’d eventually make
progress on the parlor, I still wasn’t sure what to do about the
menu for the feast. Fish and game were only a start.

“I’ve been considering what foods to offer.
In your jaunts around the estate, do you recall any fruit or nut
trees?” I asked as we walked through the halls.

“Several actually. There is an apple grove
and a couple stands of hazelnut trees.”

“Perfect. Tomorrow, I want to see them. But
I’ll need you and Mrs. Palant to help in the sitting rooms and
ballroom. Do you think Tam could show me the way?”

“I’ll speak with him tonight. I’m sure he
can.”

At the library, she gave me a large smile
then left me.

I strode through the doors and found
Father’s desk empty and the study door closed. The whisper of my
boots across the rugs sounded loud in the silence. What could
Father and Lord Ruhall be discussing that brought about such a
hush? I paused to knock.

Lord Ruhall opened the door. His tense
shoulders and tight jaw told me he was upset. His eyes swept over
me, lingering the longest on my face.

“Benella, what happened to you?”

“I’ve been in the southern sitting room off
the ballroom and am pleased to say I’ve made good progress.” I
didn’t clarify that the progress only included furniture
arrangement and not actual cleaning. His daunted expression told me
he already worried enough.

He stepped back and motioned me in. Several
paces into the study, I stopped short. A small table with two place
settings waited before the fireplace. The room was empty, save for
the two of us. Behind me, the door closed.

“Where’s Father?” I said, turning to look at
Lord Ruhall.

He scowled at me. There was no mistaking his
surly mood.

“He has no progress to share yet and wanted
me to remind you that he just started the list today.”

I nodded absently and edged my way toward
the table. Lord Ruhall slowly followed. Why was I feeling so wary?
Perhaps it was his focused attention or perhaps the expression he
wore was similar to the one he’d worn this morning after he’d
thought to show me he wasn’t cold. Right now, he looked anything
but cold. His flushed face concerned me.

“Isn’t it a bit warm for a fire already,
sir?”

“Alec,” he said, correcting me. “It was a
little chilly in here after a day with the window open.” He trailed
me, making a game of slowly chasing me around the room. It reminded
me too much of the way the beast had stalked me on more than one
occasion.

“I believe I’m not yet hungry.”

He stopped moving and narrowed his eyes.

“Benella, sit.”

“I think not.”

He ran a hand through his hair, looked ready
to yell, but then took a deep breath.

“I made this myself,” he said, gesturing at
the covered plates. Though his manner hadn’t changed, that he’d
cooked piqued my interest.

“Really? You cooked?”

“You know the extent of my skill,” he
said.

My gaze met his. I realized he sought to
show me that he and the beast were the same person. My heart
lurched. He didn’t understand.

Logically, I knew they were the same. Yet,
inside, I remained torn in reconciling the two. The man who had
been held back by a simple hand on his shoulder, the man who had
chosen his freedom over saving me from—I felt a heaviness on my
chest and stopped the direction of my thought. That man was not the
beast who had scared off Tennen and Splane so many times. Neither
was he the beast who had risked Rose’s wrath to fetch me from her
cottage. One side of him wanted me above all else, and the other
sacrificed me for his own desire.

I closed my eyes against the ache in my
chest. It wasn’t for loss of purpose that I wanted to leave the
North. It was to avoid the pain of seeing the man who didn’t want
me enough.

Lips brushed my cheek, and my eyes flew
open.

He pulled back enough to meet my gaze.

“As a man, I can finally do the one thing I
craved to do as a beast.”

“What is that?”

“Kiss you.” He leaned in once more to the
other cheek. His touch was infinitely light. Warm lips, soft
compared to the beast’s, yet still firm. A little bird took flight
in my breast, beating its wings against its boned cage and robbing
me of air.

His lips retreated.

“Sit. Please.” He pulled out a chair for
me.

Sitting, I watched him walk to his place. He
seemed more relaxed now. Why? Was it the kiss or that I’d agreed to
dine with him?

He uncovered the plates, and I couldn’t help
the smile that spread across my face. The sad little egg tartlet
wasn’t as burnt as the last time we’d made it. He was getting
better.

“It looks delicious, my Lord.”

“Alec.”

“How did Mrs. Wimbly react to the use of her
kitchen?”

His puzzlement over the name I’d used
disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

“Ah, the cook. I sent her and her assistant
away so no one would witness my attempt.”

I took a bite. The flavor was there, and the
texture not bad.

“Much improved,” I said after I swallowed.
“Where did you find the eggs?”

“Tam and I left this morning to search for
the game keeper’s cottage. I had recalled the estate having one. We
found it.”

I nibbled on the tartlet as I listened.

“The cottage is in good repair, spared
perhaps by the enchantment. Beside the cottage is an overgrown,
fenced pasture. The grass had grown so high we couldn’t see the
goats after we’d herded them in. It will help the winter hay last
longer. On the other side of the pasture, we found a barn that can
easily house the goats as well as several other animals. But the
prize was the quail pen beside the barn. When we opened the door,
Tam almost took a quail to the head. They flew out in a drove but
didn’t go far. No one has been out there in fifty years yet the
birds seem tame. Tam is working on the netting for their side
pen.”

“This is wonderful news. Eggs and milk. The
estate is on its way to self-sufficiency. How close is the
cottage?”

“It’s a distance, near the east wall. Tam
and I believe we found the old path to it. We’ll need to clear it
again for a wagon.”

“Egrit told me the estate also has apple and
hazelnut trees. I’ve asked if Tam can take me to them tomorrow. I’m
hoping we can incorporate the fruit into the feast’s menu. If
there’s anything to harvest, we will need Swiftly and Tam to switch
from the main barn to those efforts. I plan to keep our new help
busy cleaning in here. I’m reluctant to pull the hunters from their
task until we have a full cellar.”

“A sound plan.”

I took another bite of my dinner and
considered how the addition of eggs and apples might help the
menu.

“Do you recall the food you usually served?”
I asked.

He shook his head and shame painted his
face.

“My mother handled those details. The last
few years, I didn’t attend regularly; but when I did, I brought
unsuitable company.” His words grew strained. “I was such a fool. I
miss her,” he said.

I reached across the table and set my hand
on his. I had no words to offer him. We were meant to make
mistakes. We learned from them. But how did one console another for
a mistake that cost him his mother? He turned his hand to hold
mine. His thumb softly rubbed the back of mine for a moment before
I pulled away. When he touched me like that, my heart felt too
vulnerable.

We ate the rest of the meal in silence, and
I was glad he didn’t ask for any further details of what I had
planned for I didn’t yet have any.

If we had eggs, milk, apples, and nuts, we
had the base for some simple fare. Father and Mr. Crow would handle
the guest list, Mrs. Wimbly the cooking, and the rest of us the
cleaning. Could it be that simple? What was I missing? I needed to
look at his ledgers.

While I absently stared at the table and
took a sip of my water, a missing piece fell into place, and I
wrinkled my nose.

“Table linens, serving dishes, and something
to drink.” I groaned as I thought of another piece. “And music.
What kind of music?” I looked up and met his amused gaze.

“That wonderful head of yours never stops,
does it?”

“As my father recently brought to my
attention, when it does, I grow bored.”

The relaxed calm fled his expression as his
jaw tightened.

“And boredom doesn’t suit you, does it,” he
said softly. He straightened in his chair and, with an almost
accusatory glance, continued our conversation.

“The linens we have—if time hasn’t damaged
them—as well as the serving dishes. If there are enough apples,
Mrs. Wimbly could press them for cider.”

“A perfect harvest drink,” I said in
agreement. I itched to wander out to the grove now to see if there
were enough, but I needed to start the actual cleaning of the
southern parlor.

“Thank you for cooking for me, sir—Alec,” I
quickly corrected myself after a hard look from him. “I want to
continue working in the parlor until the sun sets. Did you want me
to take the tray back to the kitchen?” I stood.

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