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Our family had been one of the most prominent families in town. We didn’t want for anything, lived in a beautiful house and were welcomed wherever we went, often attending balls and such like.

But that all changed shortly after my seventeenth birthday.

My father, William Northman, was a wealthy businessman in the production industry, but business dealings took a turn for the worse and little by little, he was forced to sell off his assets, until before long, there was nothing left but debts to pay.

Not being able to face us with his failure, he took his own life. My mother found his limp body hanging from a beam in the stable and was too late to revive him. He was only thirty seven. We were devastated. But we didn’t have long to mourn his loss as creditors were onto my mother before he’d had chance to go cold in his grave.

To pay off outstanding business debts, we were forced to leave our lavish home and move to a more downmarket area of town. But at least we had a home we could easily afford, and enough money to keep us going for a little while. It could’ve been so much worse. Or so I thought.

Not able to get over the death of my father, my mother slumped into a deep dark depression which consumed her, taking her from us just six months after his death. This left me and my siblings alone in the world, without a clue as to how to survive. We’d lived a very sheltered life under our parent’s care and hadn’t ever had to think about money or the cost of living, and we’d certainly never had to think about working for a living. Now with our funds dwindling, something would have to change.

“I’m taking a job in the city” my oldest brother Kevin announced “with the amount of money I’ll be earning, I can afford to live there and send some home”

“But what will you do?” Elizabeth, my sister older than me by a year, asked.

“With the education I’ve had, I’m sure something will come my way” he stated confidently and we had to believe that he was right. He was twenty one and therefore seen as an authority figure by us now. That expensive boarding school education he’d received was actually going to be of some benefit.

And so Kevin left home, leaving Elizabeth, me and our youngest brother Howie to look after ourselves.

“Isabelle, could I have that last piece of bread? I’m still hungry” asked Howie after our evening meal one night.

“Of course” I replied and passed the plate to him.

In recent weeks, the amount of money Kevin was sending home was becoming smaller and smaller, until it stopped altogether. He claimed that he’d met a girl he wanted to marry and so every penny was needed for his new life with her. There was no room in his life for us anymore. We’d have to manage on our own.

“What are we going to do?” I asked Elizabeth as we cleared away the remains of the meal we’d just eaten.

“If we don’t want to end up in the poor house, then we’re going to have to look for work” she stated simply

“But what kind of work? I don’t know where to start” I stated truthfully. I’d never had to think about such things. It was always assumed that I’d meet and marry a man of a similar class and get married and live happily ever after. Now I knew that there was no such thing as that, happily ever afters were distant dreams.

“I was thinking of seeking work with some of our parents old friends” Elizabeth stated “I am fluent in French, and can also play piano, maybe I could be a governess”

I remembered back to our days of schooling; how Elizabeth was the one who paid attention in our French lessons, whilst I was too busy daydreaming. I barely knew enough French to get by, let alone teach it. My piano skills weren’t up to much either. In fact, the only lesson I had paid attention in was literature. I loved to read. No, I couldn’t get a job as a governess; I’d have to think of something else.

Unfortunately, none of our parents old friends were prepared to take us on in any capacity. They couldn’t bear the scandal that surrounded our name. It was as if all those years of friendship had all been a lie.

By sheer good fortune, Elizabeth found a job at the local village school as a teacher. She had no use for French or any of the finer teachings, but nevertheless, she enjoyed her work, even if the pay wasn’t exactly a fortune.

“Isabelle” Howie called excitedly, running down the path with what looked like a couple of rabbits dangling lifelessly in his hands “look what I’ve got”

“Where did you get those Howie?” I queried and gave him a stern look. I knew for certain that he hadn’t bought them, we didn’t have the money.

“I caught them in the woods” he stated proudly “and Alex showed me how to skin them. We can have rabbit for dinner”

“Very well then, but you can skin them” I replied as I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

Those rabbits lasted a couple of days, providing a few meals, and Howie became quite the hunter. He brought home various small animals over the next few weeks, until one evening he didn’t come home.

“Miss Northman” a skinny boy knocked on the door “Howie has been caught”

“Caught doing what?” I asked innocently, wondering if this boy was the infamous Alex I’d been hearing all about from Howie.

“Poaching of course” he replied “up on the Carter estate”

“Poaching?” I queried “but he wouldn’t…”

“How do you think he came by all those rabbits, fish and other animals? The best place to catch them is up on the Carter estate” he replied “the river runs right through the estate”

“Well then, you must take me to this place” I requested.

“I’ll show you where it is, but I’m not going in” he agreed “it’s creepy”

I wondered what could be creepy about it as we approached the estate, which was a couple of miles out of town. From the distance, the house looked huge and situated in acres and acres of land. Maybe the size of the place overwhelmed Alex, but I’d seen houses on this scale on a regular basis when my parents had been alive.

“You’ll have to go it alone now Miss” he said, then turned and fled.

I carefully climbed the stile, ensuring not to snag my dress as it was one of the only good ones I had left. The land was wild an unkempt, providing the perfect home for nature. I enjoyed the warm breeze blowing through my hair as I made my way towards the house. It was refreshing to have a change of scenery and no doubt would do me good to enjoy the outdoors for a few hours.

As I neared the house, I noticed that Alex had possibly been correct in his assumptions. The house did look quite creepy and even a little neglected. I could understand that the fields furthest away from the house would be left wild and natural, but closer to the house I had expected to see well tended gardens and possibly a gardener busily going about his business. There was nothing to suggest anyone had been near these gardens in years.

I walked up the mossy steps and knocked on the huge wooden door. I couldn’t hear a single sound of life from within. Then all of a sudden, the door swung open and I stood facing a person whose features I could not make out, covered up in a cloak as they were.

“Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want it, now get off my land” he shouted and went to close the door.

“But please, I’m not selling anything, it’s about my brother” I said “I was told he was here”

“If you’re talking about a thieving little bastard, then yes, he is here” he spat menacingly, making me want to back away.

“But he isn’t a thief, I’m sure he meant no harm, you see…” I began explaining but was interrupted.

“And you expect me to hand him over, just like that? He stole from me! I demand to be compensated” he growled “he can work until I see fit as to dispense with him”

“No” I protested knowing how frightened my twelve year old brother must be feeling “please, let him go”

“If I hand him over, it will be to the law, and we all know what happens to thieves” he snarled

“Please, let me take his place” I pleaded, even though the thought terrified me “I could cook, clean, even tend to the garden…please let him go”

“You would do all that for your brother?” he questioned “you would work in his place?”

“Yes” I replied “just please let him go, he’s only a child”

“Very well” he replied and closed the huge door, leaving me standing outside on the steps.

A few minutes later, the door opened and my brother came running out and into my arms.

“Isabella, oh Isabella, I’m so sorry. I’ll never ever do anything like this again, but I wanted to help out” he sobbed against me whilst I hugged him close.

“Shh” I soothed “it’s alright, now you run along home and tell Elizabeth that I’ve found a job and will be home when I can”

“You’re not coming home?” he asked, looking at me with teary eyes.

“No, but everything will be alright. Now you be good and do as I tell you” I said, trying to hold myself together to stop the tears from flowing.

“Bye Belle” he said

“Goodbye Howie, I’ll see you soon” I whispered and watched as he ran, until he was a mere speck in the distance.

“Very touching” came that sinister voice before me “now follow me, there’s work to be done”

“Please sir, can I ask whom I’m working for?” I asked

“You know the name of this estate?” he asked and I nodded “then it’s pretty obvious who you are working for isn’t it”

I followed Mr Carter into a large kitchen where I was left to prepare a meal. He assured me that everything I needed was to hand and to ring the bell when it was ready. He would be in his study until then.

I glanced around the huge room, which not only housed an impressive – if a little neglected - kitchen but also a solid wooden table and chairs next to an open fire. I would have no need for the open fire once I got the stove lit, but I was sure that in the depths of winter, this would be a lovely cosy place to be.

I busied myself preparing a meal the likes of which I’d not had in a long time. My mouth watered just thinking about how good it would taste when it was done. I made sure there was enough for myself too and then rang the large bell once it was ready.

“Mmm, smells good” he said gruffly as he entered the room and took a seat at the table, waiting for me to serve his food.

I placed his plate in front of him and stood back.

“Well, aren’t you going to sit and eat too, I presume you made enough for the both of us?” he asked a little softer.

“I did” I replied and dished up a plateful for myself and carried it over to the table. I hesitated for a moment and then took a seat.

Mr Carter began eating and so I picked up my knife and fork and slowly began to eat mine.

“Aren’t you going to take off that hood?” I queried realising that I still hadn’t seen his face, only a hint of what was beneath.

“No” he replied in a tone of voice which made me not want to ask twice.

We ate the rest of our meal in silence and then he told me he was going to his study for an hour whilst I cleared away.

I could’ve done one of two things, either cry or get on with it. I chose to get on with it. Crying wouldn’t pay off Howie’s debt to this man and I soon had the kitchen as tidy as if it was my own.

“If you are done in here, I’ll show you to your room” he said from the shadows at the doorway “follow me”

He led me through the hallway and up the sweeping circular staircase, which was probably very impressive in its former glory, but now just looked tired and neglected. There were oil paintings adorning the walls, covered in years of dust by the look of it and all depicting beautiful looking blonde haired men in clothing of their time. His ancestors I supposed and wondered if beneath that cloak, he resembled any of them.

“This will be your room whilst you are here” he said when we came to a stop outside a closed door. He swung the door open and we stepped inside, revealing a beautifully decorated and furnished room, complete with four poster bed and a dressing table adorned with various perfumes and other items the lady of the house would require. I wondered when they were last used, if ever.

“This is lovely” I said in surprise, my mouth curling up into a smile for the first time since I’d arrived here.

“Goodnight” he said and swept out of the room before I had a chance to say another word.

Once he’d left, I took a good look around the room, noticing the bookcase filled with all kinds of books. At least when I was done with my chores, my stay here wouldn’t be too unpleasant. I could easily forget my troubles with a good book.

Sleep came surprisingly easy considering I was in a strange and unfamiliar house, with a man I hadn’t even looked upon properly. The huge bed was divine and I sunk into it and drifted off immediately. The sun streamed through the curtains the following morning and for a moment I forgot where I was.

“I can’t wear the same clothes for days” I said to myself as I strode across the room in my underclothes to where my dress was draped across the back of a chair. I washed and made myself look presentable and then exited the room, hoping I could find my way down to the kitchen where I was required to make breakfast.

Upon entering the kitchen, he was there waiting.

“Morning” I said and without a word, he left the room, leaving me alone once more to carry out my culinary duties.

“If you care to look through the wardrobes in your room, you will find more clothing” he said once we’d finished breakfast “I’m sure there are items in there suitable for your needs”

I imagined a wardrobe filled with rags suitable for cleaning and gardening, but when I opened up the double doors, I gasped in surprise. Beautiful dresses in every colour hung there like new. I pulled one out and held it against my body, looking at my reflection in the mirror admiringly. What was he doing with all these things? No one else lived here, of that I was positive. I hung the dress back and decided to see if there was anything a bit more practical for my needs. There wasn’t really. But I did find a few plainer dresses which I assumed would be alright for me to wear.

“Perfect fit too” I said as I smoothed the dress down and then took it off and put my old one back on.

“Is there nothing to your liking?” he asked when I returned back downstairs “I’m sure they would fit you”

“Yes thanks, but I don’t want to get anything ruined” I replied and wondered whether to ask whose clothes they were. I decided that I had to ask. “Who do they belong to anyway? It’s obvious you live here alone”

“Yes, I do live here alone” he replied with a sigh. “Whose things they were is no concern of yours, but you are welcome to do with them as you please”

“Thank you” I replied and refrained from asking anything else.

“Now, I’ve made a list of chores for you to do today. If you need me, I’ll be in my study, but I do not want to be disturbed” he said and with a swoosh of his cloak, was gone.

Over the next couple of days I worked like a slave in that house, by the time I was done, every room I’d been required to clean shone like new. The paintings no longer hid under a thick film of dust, the windows were now gleaming and that dark and gloomy hallway was now light and airy and filled with fresh flowers which I’d unearthed from a section of the garden which was weed free. I wondered how much longer he’d keep me here. It wasn’t so bad though, he wasn’t quite the ogre he’d seemed when I first arrived. We even managed to converse in a civil manner, although he gave nothing away about himself, only wanted to hear about my life.

It was after I’d spent the morning in the garden that I first heard the sound of singing coming from within the house somewhere, it was a song I was unfamiliar with but it was mesmerising. But as soon as I entered the house, the singing stopped suddenly.

“Isabelle” he greeted me and inclined his head as I walked into the house.

“Mr Carter” I replied and went to clean myself up in order to prepare food. I wondered if I’d ever uncover the mystery surrounding him. Would he ever remove that damned cloak in my presence? I thought we were getting along well, all things considered; surely he could lower that hood in my presence now. Shyness didn’t seem to be the problem with him. So what exactly was it?

I busied myself in the kitchen preparing food, but instead of ringing the bell to summon Mr Carter, I decided to go and get him personally. I crept towards his study and noticed that the door was ajar. Pushing it ever so softly, I gasped and froze at what I saw. Mr Carter was sitting at his desk with his hood down, his disfigured face focussing on the papers before him. He heard my gasp and looked up, quickly pulling his hood back up to hide his face.

“What the hell are you doing in here? Never disturb me when I’m in my study!” he bellowed.

I ran from the room and heard his chair scrape across the floor, his heavy footsteps coming after me.

“Wait…Isabelle” he called out and I stopped where I was.

“I’m s-sorry, I shouldn’t have crept up on you like that” I stuttered, wondering just how he’d gotten those deep slashes down his face, causing the whole right side to be so grotesquely disfigured.

He stood before me and slowly removed his hood “So now you’ve seen the real me, the monster that I am. Go on scream, I know you want to” he snarled.

“What happened to you” I said in as calm a voice as possible, almost a whisper even, not wanting to anger him any further for fear of what he might do.

“You don’t have to be afraid of me you know” he stated “I can see the fear in your eyes but you have no need to worry. I wouldn’t do anything to cause you any pain”

“Then I think it’s about time you began talking Mr Carter” I said and crossed my arms across my chest to show him I meant business “I think I deserve some answers, don’t you?”

“Nickolas” he said and smiled, his lips curling up and transforming his whole face. He had a lovely smile. “But call me Nick”

“Then tell me Nick, why do you live here like this? What made you hide from society like a recluse?” I asked, genuinely concerned for this man before my eyes.

“Because of this!” he stated and indicated his scarred face “do you know what it’s like to have everyone stare at you like you’re the ugliest thing they’ve ever seen? No, I guess not, it’s not like you have that problem, you’re beautiful!”

“But…” I began and he cut me off.

“You reacted the same as all the others ‘there’s Nick Carter the beast, the hideous monster’. I’ve heard it all and I became sick of it. A man can only stand so much” he sighed.

“If you gave people the chance to get to know you…” I said and he interrupted once again.

“I tried; oh I tried, believe me. But in the end I gave up, it was easier to cover myself up and hide away, only going into town when it becomes a necessity. Even then, even covered up, I still feel like people are looking at me, as if they know what lies under the mask I wear” he explained and my heart melted for him. He wasn’t a beast or a monster or anything else people had called him. He was a good man, of that I was sure.

“They should be ashamed of themselves. I’m ashamed I reacted that way, it wasn’t out of horror, it was shock. Please forgive me” I said “But if you don’t mind me asking, what happened?”

“I suppose we’d better sit down, it’s a long story” he said and led the way towards the study, where a dying fire glowed and a couple of comfortable looking chairs awaited us.

We sat there for a couple of hours and I learned that Nick hadn’t always looked the way he did now.

He’d been the catch of the county once upon a time; with well to do families from all over hoping that he’d marry one of their daughters. But there was only one girl he wanted, her name was Hannah and she was the love of his life. They’d married relatively quickly and Nick couldn’t have been happier when just a few weeks after their wedding, Hannah announced that they were having a baby. Having a family of his own and a loving wife was all he wanted from life. So when he came home from a business trip early one day and caught his beloved in bed with a farm worker from the village, he was outraged.

“Nick, please don’t do anything foolish” Hannah had begged him whilst she tried to cover herself up “it’s not Brian’s fault”.

“Whore” Nick had called her as he fought back the tears “how could you do this to me? We’re having a baby for god’s sake”

“Oh” Hannah sighed

“It’s not mine is it?” Nick eyed the pair of them suspiciously, knowing that he’d uncovered the truth “get out of my house right now, the pair of you just go before I throw you out!”

“But Nick” she pleaded, gripping the front of his shirt “please, I’m your wife!”

At that, Nick lost his temper and pushed her away. He didn’t do her any harm but it was enough for Brian to lash out and slash at Nick’s face with the first thing he could get hold of, the knife he carried in his pocket. The pair of them struggled, with Brian being a much stronger man than Nick had anticipated. Nick had managed to get a few punches in, but was no match for a knife.

The pair of them fled, grabbing what valuables they could before leaving Nick to what they thought was his death, he was bleeding so much.

“But I didn’t die” Nick turned to face me

“What happened to them?” I asked, horrified at his tale and at how anyone could do such a thing.

“I heard that she died in childbirth and he fled, never to be seen again” Nick replied. I moved closer to him and wrapped my arms around him, just to try and reassure him that it was alright to talk, that none of what happened had been his fault.

We stayed like that for a while, me just holding him close, giving him the comfort that he craved so much.

After that day, Nick and I turned a corner in our bizarre relationship. No longer did he wear that dark cloak which hid his face, he left it behind and moved on, at least in the privacy of his own estate. He seemed altogether more positive about life and it showed in the way he acted in everything he did. No more keeping his music from me, instead, I could hear the rich sounds of beautiful music coming from the study whilst I undertook my work in the house.

The more I got to know him, the more I didn’t want to leave. I was beginning to have feelings for him, although the very thought confused me.

“I suppose I’d better let you go back to your family” he said when I’d been there for far longer than I should’ve been “although I’ve enjoyed your company and shall miss you when you go”

“I don’t have to go” I said, hoping for a sign, for anything to show me that he had any feelings towards me, but he wasn’t forthcoming.

And so I returned to my family. I was delighted to see them again, as they were happy to have me back, but I just couldn’t shake off that feeling I had when I thought of Nick Carter. The way he spoke, the look in his eyes when he spoke passionately about something, the way his whole face seemed to transform when he smiled, the way he looked in rolled up shirt sleeves…everything about him I had come to love. I no longer saw the scars on his face as anything but a part of who he was. I loved him.

“What happened to you up there?” asked Elizabeth “because you haven’t been the same since you came back”

“I’m fine” I replied

“Are you sure he didn’t do anything inappropriate? It’s not right that you were alone with him, I should’ve done something, I shouldn’t have just left you alone” she said

“You had no choice, I had to do it, and no, he didn’t touch me” I assured her.

“Well, that’s alright then” she said and the conversation ended.

A couple of weeks passed and I couldn’t help wondering how Nick was. I longed to see him but had no reason to bother him when he so obviously didn’t share the same feelings I did. I even began to imagine that I saw him out and about around the village. But then I told myself that it couldn’t be.

“Would you get some more flour when you go to the market today?” Elizabeth asked as I got my basket ready to go.

“Anything else?” I asked before heading out

“Only the usual” she replied.

I strolled along in a world of my own, before long arriving at my destination. But something was going on in the marketplace. A crowd had gathered and I could hear shouting and jeering. I had a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach as I pushed through the crowds to see what was going on.

“Nick” I cried out as I saw him in the centre of a circle of thugs, his cloak pulled down revealing his beautiful but scared face. He heard me and looked my way, before lowering his gaze in defeat.

“Leave him alone” I shouted “he’s done nothing wrong”

“He’s a beast” called one woman.

“A monster” called an old man.

“Look at him, how can anyone possibly want to keep company with such a creature” said an old crone.

“How dare you, all of you! His face is scarred, that doesn’t make him any less a man” I shouted loud enough for everyone to hear and they began to disperse, having had their fun at Nick’s expense but not wanting to get involved in any confrontations.

“Isabelle, you don’t have to defend me” Nick spoke quietly “they’ve made up their minds”

“How can you just accept it? Nick, you are a wonderful person both inside and out” I said and touched the scars on his face tenderly, not caring what anyone thought.

“Do you really mean that?” he asked hopefully and I answered by placing my lips to his.

“Does that answer your question?” I asked and now it was my turn to be unsure, I lowered my gaze to the ground whilst I waited for him to say something.

He answered by tilting my face upwards and placing his warm lips against mine in a sweet kiss.

The retreating crowd quickly dispersed, horrified at such a public display of affection right before their eyes.

“Come on” Nick said taking my hand in his.

“Where are we going?” I asked

“Somewhere you should’ve never left” he replied and led me to where his horse was tethered, assisted me up and then climbed up behind me. I wrapped my arms around his body, liking the feel of him under my hands, as we rode off out of this small minded village.

And they lived happily ever after.

~ The End ~