A voice behind her sent her heart leaping from her chest to lodge on her throat. She cleared it well enough to scream so loud her ears rang. Scrambling to the side, her back hit the wall. A little man wearing a black vest and black trousers stood just to the right of an open door near where she’d landed. Wrinkles lined his face and thick white hair covered his head, but he was of an indeterminate age that fell somewhere between sixty and eighty.
“So sorry for scaring you.” He stayed a safe distance away, his smile creasing his face. “I’d been wondering when you’d arrive.”
She used the wall to help her stand to her feet without taking her eyes off of the man. Her heart rate had already started to settle and nothing about the man felt threatening.
“My name is Fabian Remi Tischin. But you can call me Fritz.”
Something about it made her giggle unexpectedly. Fritz seemed to fit him far better than the very French name he’d given her.
“And what shall I call you, lovely?”
That killed her laughter. No one had ever called her lovely or anything similar to it. She wasn’t lovely by any stretch of the imagination, but she didn’t correct him. No need to be sour at his kind comment.
“I am Belladona, but you can call me Bella.”
“Ah, the deadly nightshade.” A secret smile tipped up his lips making him look young and playful. “I imagine you’re quite a force, aren’t you?”
Her, a force? This time her laughter was bitter. “I’m afraid I don’t live up to my name.”
“But it is a beautiful name for a beautiful woman.” He sketched a bow at her, his hair brushing the ground he dipped so low. “I am happy to make your acquaintance, Beautiful Bella, and hope to make your stay here at Heyward Estate as comfortable as possible.”
Too many emotions tumbled end over end in her mind. Bella never been bothered too much by her looks even if she wasn’t what men wanted, but the day had took its toll on her. She felt low and needed a distraction before depression swallowed her up.
“You said you were expecting me?” She had a host of scenarios in her head, but her being expected wasn’t one of them.
Excitement seemed to light in his gray eyes. “Of course. Master Gregor rarely has long term visitors, or visitors at all, so he sent word of your arrival as soon as you were…”
His words trailed away as pink tinged his cheeks.
“Yes.” He cleared his throat and then gestured down the long hallway. “You’ve made it is the important thing. This way.”
She found herself stepping forward to follow the little man. Funny that for the first time in ages, she didn’t feel in the way or scared. A nice change of pace.
They made their way down the candlelit hallway. His shoes made a quick tapping sound on the stone floor, which echoed. The house seemed to be made entirely of dark wood and gray stone. They passed a number of shut wooden doors, two large stone fireplaces, and just before they made it to the spiral staircase, a collection of family paintings.
The pictures made her stop. Glancing up at the large photos, she gazed up at the stern faces. So many hawk noses and cleft chins, they were the faces of strong men frozen in time. The bright colors of their clothing did nothing to soften the hard looks. Looking at the last photo in the line, Bella was riveted to the softer gaze of the younger man. He stood ramrod, clothed in the attire of a solider. Where his pose was stiff, his eyes was lively and welcoming. It was the look of man seeking adventure, on the cusp of discovering it. Bella found herself longing to know this man.
“Master Gregor.” Fritz’s voice was soft. “He was a handsome man.”
Bella wanted to reach up and touch his face. Her hands itched to trace its shape and feel the contours of it. She wanted to feel the cleft in his chin and be the center of his attention. This was her monster.
“What happened to him?”
The words hung heavy in the air around them. She’d whispered them, half fearing he’d appear to haunt her for asking.
She turned toward Fritz when he sighed. The pain in the older man’s face made her heart ache.
“So many things, but it is a story he must tell you himself.”
Bella wasn’t sure she was up another face to face conversation with the man in question. She glanced back up at the painting. Something inside her twisted as she realized how much whatever happened to him had changed him from the man in the picture.
“Come along, miss. It’s nearly dinner time and I have to get you to your room before Claudette comes to find me.”
That seemed to send him into a nervous titter. He turned on his heels and started up the staircase. Bella glanced up at the painting, searching the young man’s eyes for… something.
“I’ll figure out your secret.”
“Finally, I’ll barely have time to get her dressed before dinner.”
Fritz had barely shown her into a beautifully decorated room the color of the midday sky when a round woman came flouncing out from somewhere. She grabbed Bella’s hand as she chastised the blushing old man.
“I give you one task, you slow old man. Bring me the girl! We never have ladies with us and I never get to dress them.” Her french accent was so thick it was difficult to understand her as she spoke the words at a rapid fire pace. “Can you do nothing I tell you?”
“It wasn’t his fault-” They both attempted to speak, but were cut off as the woman bumped Fritz out of the room and pushed Bella on to the bed.
“Non. Go tell Henrique to hold the soup for ten more minutes. I will have her down shortly.”
Fritz hurried out as Claudette grabbed at the shift Bella wore. Bella held it down before she could pull it over her head. The woman’s overly made up face pinched and her breasts almost spilled from the top of corset when she heaved a sigh.
“How am I to dress you properly if you’re wearing that sack?” She yanked at it again, nearly getting it off before Bella pulled it back down.
“I’m naked beneath this.”
“Good. It’ll make getting this dress on easier.”
“I can dress myself.” The woman’s hurt look tamped down some of Bella’s irritation. They rarely have guests, she reminded herself. “Let me see the dress and then I’ll take the shift off.”
The woman practically clapped with delight. “Marvelous.”
Turning away, she returned with a stunning red dress with a host of frills and lace. Bella had never seen a piece of clothing so lavish.
“This will look beautiful against your brown skin.” Claudette brushed a hand along the top of Bella’s chest, making a nipple tighten in response. “And your breasts, beyond divine. He could not possibly resist.”
Before Bella could ask what she meant, Claudette was pulling her to her feet and helping her pull her shift up.
“Quick, quick. There is little time.”
She was naked one second and sheathed in the form fitting dress the next. It didn’t require a corset, but felt like it had stays in the bodice that cinched in her waist. Her breasts, which were barely a handful, seemed to fill the top to overflowing. The back had lacing that Claudette pulled tight until she nearly gasped for breath.
“I will fix your hair.”
The woman’s hands were deep in her locks as she mumbled the words. She wasn’t sure how, but Claudette seemed to work magic on her tight curls, piling the mass of them up on the top of her head.
“Rouge.” A brush fluttered across her cheeks. “Lips.”
She was pulled in front of the vanity mirror and barely recognized herself. This person was… She couldn’t even think the word. There was no time to marvel at the stranger in the mirror before slippers were placed on her feet and she was guided from the room. It was another maze of stairs and a long hallway before she was left at the dining room doors.
“Ah, my lady.” Fritz was at the double doors, a smile on his face. “You look stunning.”
Bella smiled back and dipped into a curtsy before walking through the doors as they were opened for her. The room was huge with a high ceiling and chandeliers dripping with diamonds, big windows that would show the beautiful exterior in the daytime. A long table dominated the room with two place settings down toward the other end. It was a little much for two people.
“I didn’t think you’d come to dinner.”
The sharp sound of his voice made her jump. Standing close behind her, he was dressed in the same clothing as before though less menacing in the brighter lights of the room. His white mask was firmly in place, revealing only his dark eyes. It took a moment for her to steady herself, but she lifted her chin, refusing to be scared of him.
“I have to eat.”
His eyes scanned her body. Her breath caught as his gaze felt like a caress on her skin. Bella thought of that young man in the photo, the excitement in his eyes. Some of that excitement was there now as he looked at her and she felt the start of something that made her ache deep in her core.
“Will you remove your mask?”
The way his eyes darkened made her regret her question.
“No.” His voice was as harsh as his face.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he exited so she was alone again.
This time, his sudden departure left her feeling a unsettled in a different way.