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Authors: MJ Haag

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BOOK: Devastation: A Beauty and the Beast Novel
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“Go,” he said with an annoyed wave. “I can
take care of this.”

I didn’t try to guess what had irritated
him. It was better not to delve too deeply. I felt his gaze on me
as I left the library.

In the ballroom, just outside the sitting
room, I found two buckets of ash. Inside the room, I found Egrit
and Mrs. Palant hard at work. Soot no longer coated the fireplace,
and the smaller rugs lay rolled up in the ballroom, leaving the
sitting room floor exposed to their exhaustive effort. A good half
of the area was clean.

“Thank you both,” I said, stepping into the
room. “I didn’t expect you to work on your first night, Mrs.
Palant. Are your children asleep?”

“Retta offered to put them to bed. I wanted
to see what work needed to be done.”

“Make sure Retta and the children know they
can seek you out whenever they wish. This isn’t a strict household
and you working here should not deprive them of their mother.”

I picked up a wet rag and joined their
efforts. With three of us laboring, we finished the floor just a
bit after dark. As we were leaving, Tam and Swiftly entered with
candles and a ladder.

“We just washed the southern parlor floor,”
Egrit said to both of them. “Don’t dirty it with your boots or
dripping wax.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tam said with a wink.

Egrit shook her head at him and turned to
me.

“I saw Lord Ruhall refilling the kettle when
I went for the last bucket of warm water. There should be plenty
for us to bathe.” She handed me a pail of dirty water. “I’ll run
and get us something clean to change into.”

Mrs. Palant and I went to wait in the
laundry where we worked together to fill a large washing kettle and
the wooden tub with warm water.

When Egrit returned, she insisted I take the
tub while they washed from a bucket. They’d somehow avoided wearing
the grime I wore. I willingly stripped and slid into the water with
a sigh. Once I finished washing away the dust, I forced myself from
the pleasant water and dressed in a clean nightgown and wrap before
throwing my dirty dress into the bath water. Egrit and Mrs. Palant
threw in the aprons they had wisely worn. At Egrit’s insistence, I
left them to finish the laundry since Tam planned to take me to the
woods at first light.

I padded barefoot through the halls but
didn’t go to my room. Though I had an idea of what the feast might
entail because of Mr. Crow and Lord Ruhall, I wanted specifics. I
needed to read the ledgers.

In the library only a glow of coals remained
in the fireplace, which didn’t surprise me. Father usually left
after dinner unless Lord Ruhall requested something from him.
Tiptoeing across the room in the moonlight, I focused on the dim
study. An unlit candle waited on the desk, along with three
ledgers. The three years before Alec’s enchantment. Each held a
bookmark on a page with the feast’s accounting. Alec had obviously
wondered the same thing and sought the answers in the ledgers as
well. I quickly scanned the marked pages. The feast cost the estate
dearly. Even the last year Alec’s mother had hosted it. Three
hundred gold. An impossible amount. I would just need to find a way
to spend as little as possible and keep Alec from worrying.

I left the study and quickly made my way to
my room. Someone had turned down the covers. I slipped under them
and closed my eyes.

* * * *

The bed moved, waking me. Alec sat back
against the headboard and ran his fingers through my damp, unbound
hair.

“Please,” he whispered, his voice raw.

My breath caught. Did he know he had woken
me? I could think of only one reason he came to me in the middle of
the night with such a pretty, desperate word on his lips. Panic
took flight in my chest. Yet, he didn’t seem to notice the change
in my breathing as his fingers continued to run through my
hair.

“Please. Please don’t let her leave me.”

The desperation in his whispered words
stopped the panic. My heart broke for him as I suddenly understood
his anger in the ballroom and at dinner. He had been in the study
when I had spoken to Father and knew I meant to leave him.

He truly believed he needed me. Perhaps he
did. Rose’s letter regarding the feast made it clear she wasn’t
done with him. I would need to assure him I meant to stay through
the feast. But not now when his mood was so volatile. I remained
still as his fingers ran through my hair until he lulled me to
sleep once more.

* * * *

The next morning, I woke with a start and
sat up. The bed beside me was empty. I stared at the spot for a
moment, disoriented, then flopped back onto the bed. Alec thought I
meant to abandon him before the feast. I’d need to tell him I meant
to stay through the feast. But, how could I tell him without making
him aware I’d been awake?

The door opened.

“Good morning,” Egrit said in a chipper
tone.

I groaned.

“You go to bed the same time I do. How do
you wake before me?” I asked.

“When I set my head to my pillow, I
immediately sleep. Do you?”

I used to. Lately, however, my mind raced
long after I set my head to my pillow. It didn’t help that Lord
Ruhall interrupted my sleep as well. Egrit didn’t wait for me to
answer.

“Tam’s waiting for you.”

I didn’t need further motivation to remove
myself from bed. I hurried to dress.

The apples proved plentiful but not yet
ripe, whereas the nuts had already ripened and most had fallen.
With Tam’s estimate of another two weeks for the apples to be
ready, I gathered what nuts remained and took them to the kitchen.
Given Mrs. Wimbly’s continued surly mood, I kept the news of the
apples to myself and went off to help in the ballroom once
more.

While I assisted washing the large, long
curtains, I pondered the menu. The unripe apples were a blessing as
the kitchen could now remain focused on preparation and storage
until just before the feast. Yet, would such a short timeframe be
enough when they still had to cook meals?

I left Mrs. Palant and Egrit to wring and
hang the material and went to the kitchen to seek Mrs. Wimbly’s
opinion. Hard at work with a stag on the block and several fish
waiting on the table, she scowled at me when I entered. I left the
room with my answer. She would not much appreciate additional
work.

While the curtains dried, Egrit, Mrs.
Palant, and I returned to the ballroom to move the furniture
outdoors for an airing. The first piece gave us trouble as we moved
it into the overgrown garden. Brambles tugged at our skirts and
poked the old material covering the cushions.

“I’m going to tell Tam we need this weeded,”
Egrit said.

I nodded my agreement. If the ballroom
became stuffy during the feast, we would need to open the doors for
air. The tangle of vegetation would prevent anyone from stepping
out.

The three of us stomped down what weeds we
could and spent the rest of the day moving pieces outside.

After dinner, Retta and Lettie found us and
explained that Otta had remained behind to watch the younger
children; and Tom, the older boy, was with Mr. Crow. I’d forgotten
they were to help clean but quickly found tasks for them to
perform. Once we finished, they helped us move the pieces indoors.
Though I knew the work they did was better than what would have
waited for them, it did bother me to see the weary droop to their
shoulders at the end of the day.

Yet, the children were no wearier than we
were. Making the barest of efforts, I washed before bed and slid
under the covers. It was only then that I recalled I hadn’t spoken
to Lord Ruhall about staying through until the end of the
feast.

I briefly considered locking the door before
I closed my eyes.

* * * *

The next day Egrit, Mrs. Palant and I worked
on the second parlor, and our progress moved slower than the
passing hours. By dinner, the furniture and rugs were outside and
beaten and the fireplace free of soot. This time Retta and Otta
joined us.

“We’ll take turns watching the little ones,”
Retta said. “If that’s all right.”

“It is. Did you two eat already?” They shook
their heads. “Let’s all stop for dinner.”

We walked together to the kitchen and found
the other children already at the table. They quietly watched Kara,
the assistant cook, scoop a portion of dinner into their bowls.

Mrs. Wimbly stood at the block, scrubbing
the surface clean. As she worked, she mumbled. I couldn’t catch
everything but enough to know that she didn’t like that the
children had come in for dinner. She moved a polished tray to the
clean block then started to set it precisely.

She’d just set the food upon it when one of
the men came in with a string of fish. She heaved a sigh.

“Set them in the basin. I’ll deal with them
in a bit.”

“Is there somewhere the tray needs to be,
Mrs. Wimbly? I’d be happy to deliver it so you can address the
fish.”

“It’s a tray for Lord Ruhall,” she said
stiffly. She still didn’t like me despite all the hard work I put
in alongside everyone else.

“Then I’ll deliver it for you.”

She set the tray on the table and turned her
back to me. Kara’s gaze darted between the two of us. I smiled at
Kara before I picked up the tray and left.

Father wasn’t at his paper stacked desk or
anywhere else in the library. From the study, I heard his
voice.

“We’ve stopped at one hundred and
twenty-five,” he said.

Silence greeted him.

I stepped into the room and caught Alec’s
hopeless gaze.

“None of that now. Have you already gone
through the list?”

“Is there a need?” Alec asked, watching me
set the tray on the small table. I took the plate from it and set
it before him but stole one of his biscuits before I turned away. I
doubted the cook would save me any dinner. Alec could share.

Father shook his head as I bit into the
biscuit. I swallowed with a grin and sat to face Alec once
more.

“Of course,” I said, answering him. “You
will need to converse with everyone who comes. Wouldn’t you like to
know their names and a little about them?”

“Very well. Mr. Hovtel, would you be kind
and read the list for us?”

Father read the list and added a few
comments about each guest. I kept my expression neutral when I
heard Bryn and Edmund’s names. Blye’s name didn’t bother me as
much. I smiled when I heard Henick and his family would receive an
invitation. I hoped they would attend. Alec’s scowl only
deepened.

“We had better add Rose’s name,” I said when
Father reached the end.

They both looked at me, clearly surprised. I
shrugged.

“She said she would be watching regardless.
Consider the invitation your official acknowledgement of her
observation, nothing more; and perhaps she will see the invitation
as a gesture of goodwill.”

I stood, knowing I needed to return to the
ballroom.

“Where are you going?” Alec said.

The thread of concern in his words stopped
me.

“For now, back to the ballroom. There is
much to clean in a very short time.” I hoped that inference would
be enough to assure him that I meant to stay through the feast.

He nodded, and I left the pair.

Mrs. Palant, Egrit, and the girls were
already hard at work scrubbing the floor. Seeing the room well
occupied, I took the ladder outside and started to wash
windows.

* * * *

The next morning, I woke with renewed
ambition. At some point during the course of the night, I’d let go
of my annoyance with Bryn long enough to realize Edmund might be
the solution to Mrs. Wimbly’s hectic schedule. Shortly after
rising, I found myself walking toward Konrall to speak to him. This
time, I brought Swiftly with.

“Benella, welcome,” Edmund said when I
walked into the bakery.

“Hello, Edmund. Allow me to introduce
Swiftly. He is in Lord Ruhall’s employ.”

Above, the door to the second floor opened.
I kept my smile on my face as Bryn descended. Her steps on the
stairs slowed when she saw me, and her welcoming smile chilled. The
arrival of another customer defused the tense moment.

“How can I help you?” Edmund said as Bryn
moved to assist the other customer.

“Lord Ruhall is hosting a harvest feast. I
would like to order two hundred pastries.”

Edmund froze and Bryn stopped speaking to
her customer to stare at me.

“I’ve had the sugar glazed kind from your
bakery in the Water and enjoyed it immensely. However, I’m hoping
you can work apples into a pastry for something out of the
ordinary, something that would fit a harvest feast.”

Edmund seemed to collect himself with a
deep, slow breath, and Bryn went back to her customer.

“Apples...yes, I should be able to procure
enough for two hundred pastries,” Edmund said.

The customer left, and Bryn lingered by the
counter.

“The estate has plenty, and I would be happy
to send Swiftly back with the amount you need. They won’t be ready
for another two weeks,” I said, knowing I’d just reduced the price
he could charge. “Also, guests will be coming from the Water and a
few even further afield. With so many guests sampling your sweet
creations, you’re sure to have new customers.”

“This is for Lord Ruhall?” Bryn said, her
voice heavy with disbelief. “Why would Lord Ruhall send you here to
buy pastries?”

Since I’d already explained the reason
behind the need for the pastries, I knew she was questioning why I
was Lord Ruhall’s emissary.

“Have you inquired after Father at all since
you wed?” I asked. Her cheeks flushed, giving me her answer. “If
you had, you would know he is no longer teaching but Lord Ruhall’s
man of estate. I’m assisting.”

Bryn opened her mouth to say more, but a
look from Edmund silenced her.

BOOK: Devastation: A Beauty and the Beast Novel
4.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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