Welcome to Beauty’s Beast, book 3 in the Black Trans Fairy Tales series. This novel­la is releas­ing one chapter/week on the blog ahead of publication. 

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Belle tried not to feel dis­ap­point­ed when she found Quinn in the heart of the dark­en­ing arbore­tum that evening, their shoul­ders slumped and eyes dull. They still wore their dark suit jack­et, the tails now trail­ing in the dirt. The quince tree, espaliered around a cen­tral pago­da, was dying. Only two yel­low leaves clung to the branch­es and the sin­gle remain­ing fruit, like a yel­low pear, drooped from the mid­dle sad­ly.
Belle recalled what Lumière had said. The curse on Quinn would only lift when they learned to love them­selves before the last fruit on the tree died. Time was run­ning out.

They’d been mak­ing progress. Quinn had opened up to her a lit­tle. She’d seen some plea­sure in their eyes and heard it rum­bling like a purr out of their chest. But men­tal health wasn’t a straight line and she knew that too. Moments like this hap­pened, like the heart was com­fort­able in its sad­ness, and they were hard to climb out of. But hard­er when one was alone.

Belle tucked her skirts under her knees and took a seat on the bro­ken tiles at the wrought iron doors set with yel­low glass fruits. Tile scraped as she did, and Quinn looked up.

Belle signed across the gap, “I’m here if you need me.”

She wasn’t close enough to tell if Quinn nod­ded or just turned back to the shrink­ing fruit on the tree.
Belle sat there, one shoul­der leaned against the stur­dy door­way, long enough for one foot to go numb. When she moved, tin­gles explod­ed down her leg and she winced. She strug­gled to stand.

Then Quinn was there, one hand on Belle’s shoul­der, the oth­er grab­bing her free hand to help her stand, claws gen­tle on her dark skin. She shook out her leg and gave them a pained smile.

Before Belle could bridge the silence, a com­mo­tion clat­tered down the hall and not a moment lat­er, Lumière careened into the arbore­tum entry­way on a rolling din­ing cart. His can­dles burned too high and the wax dripped like he was sweating.

My liege, my lady, there is a mob at the front door lead by some beast of a man. They have weapons and torch­es. Madam Armoire is hold­ing them off. You must run with me. We can flee—“

Gaston,” Belle gasped, hand to her mouth.

Quinn bar­reled past Belle and Lumière with a deep snarl. They fell to all fours and gal­loped swift­ly down the hall to the front doors. They were out of sight in a breath.

Belle hob­bled after them, foot still half-asleep and full of nee­dles. She picked up her skirts and did her best.

Lumière, get my father out of the cas­tle any way you can.”

Lumière’s cart trun­dled beside her and he rubbed his can­dle hands togeth­er. “My lady, you can’t be think­ing of fight­ing them off?”

I won’t let Quinn face Gaston alone. Gaston wants me. I can talk to him.”

This is not wise!”

No, it’s not,” Belle agreed. She grabbed the han­dle on the cart and shoved it toward the bed­rooms. “Save my father, Lumière!”

Oui, madam!”

The tin­gles in Belle’s leg final­ly sub­sided and she picked up speed, run­ning down the plush car­pet hall. She heard raised voic­es and Quinn’s bel­low­ing roar before she ever turned the corner.

She near­ly smacked into the back of a vil­lager enter­ing the atri­um. The front doors hung open like some­one had bro­ken in and dam­aged the hinges. Cold air gust­ed through the room, throw­ing the refreshed cur­tains into a tan­gle. The chan­de­lier twist­ed and tin­kled. Madam Armoire stood against one wall, her wood face pale and sport­ing sev­er­al new scratch­es in her pol­ished frame. Belle ached to help her, but she was across the room.

At least two dozen men with guns and anoth­er dozen women with pitch­forks crowd­ed the area. Gaston stood in the cen­ter, his blun­der­buss aimed and ready to fire. His black hair had been slicked back like he was pos­ing for a paint­ing, not dressed for a hunt. Belle shiv­ered at the glee­ful look on his face.

Quinn tow­ered over them all. At full height with antlers proud, they near­ly touched the chan­de­lier. The beau­ti­ful blue suit had already been ripped—or cut—in sev­er­al places, and Quinn bared all teeth and claws at Gaston, pre­pared for battle.

Belle’s heart stopped.

She shoved past the vil­lagers cir­cling them and forced her­self between Gaston and Quinn with her arms open wide. Fear made every hair stand on end and every mus­cle shake, but she stared down the bar­rel of Gaston’s weapon with her chin high.

Whispers of recog­ni­tion crept through the vil­lagers, com­ment­ing on her beard and sim­ple shoes.
Gaston’s eyes flared with fury as they met hers. She glared right back.

Then he yanked his gun up with an exag­ger­at­ed gasp and com­i­cal­ly wide eyes. “Belle! You’re alive!”
Always the showman.

Behind her, Quinn growled low. They hat­ed she had involved her­self. Well she wasn’t about to let Gaston shoot them just because he was an asshole.

Gaston put a hand on his chest and pro­ject­ed for the crowd. “You told me all about the beast when we met for tea out­side Lukas’ shop. When you and your father both went miss­ing, and we found all that blood in the house, I just knew you’d been taken.”

Her stom­ach rolled at the lies. Belle ges­tured at her­self. “Do I look injured to you?”

Gaston gave her a slow up and down and stroked his own beard­less chin with a tight­ness in his eyes. “You look… different.”

Oh she would just bet.

Different as in not fem­i­nine enough. Not pret­ty enough.

Not woman enough.

She still couldn’t let Quinn come to any harm.

Well, I’m here,” she said, try­ing to take over the con­ver­sa­tion before Gaston could spin some new tale for the crowd. “So let’s go. Come on. Put your weapons down and lets all go home.”

The vil­lagers stirred in con­fu­sion, so Belle stepped for­ward and took Gaston’s arm. He was so sur­prised he didn’t resist when she turned him around to face the doors and start­ed walk­ing. Her heart seized at the thought they might attack Quinn now, while her back was turned.

But Gaston was their leader. People fol­lowed. Muttering, con­fused, but they fol­lowed. They poured back out of the cas­tle in clumps. Gaston took Belle’s arm firm­ly in hand and lead her direct­ly to his horse—a mas­sive charg­er dressed in full hunt­ing garb that snort­ed steam into the cold air at her approach. He didn’t lift her into the sad­dle so much as shove her up, then crowd­ed in behind her with his legs pressed too close to hers and his chest against her back and his arms around her to grab the reins. She shud­dered at the smell of his cologne. Bitter and tasteless.

I don’t know what you’re up to,” Gaston snarled in her ear, qui­et and sin­is­ter, “But after I get you set­tled back at home I’ll come kill the mon­ster myself.”

The last of the vil­lagers filed out of the cas­tle and Belle watched Quinn close the front doors them­self, sad eyes lin­ger­ing on Belle as the latch clicked shut.

Gaston kicked his horse into a walk and they joined the trail of peo­ple from behind, where no one could hear Gaston snarling in her ear the whole way home.

Belle’s heart raced with each step clos­er to the vil­lage. She had to find a way to pro­tect Quinn, some way to pre­vent Gaston from run­ning off to hunt before the house­hold could gath­er togeth­er and escape.
She need­ed a way to delay him.

Some way to tie him up, at least for a few days.

And as the vil­lagers passed across the small bridge into town, a crowd of fine­ly dressed women wait­ed to greet Gaston’s return.

And Belle thought of a very bad idea.

She glared at Gaston over one shoul­der and hissed at him. “Promise me that you’ll leave Quinn and the rest of the cas­tle alone.”

You gave that crea­ture a name?” He scoffed.

Promise me.”

Why would I do that?”

Because I’ll mar­ry you.”

Gaston yanked hard on the horse’s reigns in sur­prise. The horse yelled and reared, so did Belle. She clutched Gaston’s arms to keep from falling, draw­ing the atten­tion of every­one in town. The horse set­tled.
Gaston gasped, “Say that again?”

Belle pitched her voice low­er. “I’ll mar­ry you if you promise to leave the cas­tle alone.”

You’d give up your hap­py lit­tle life just to pro­tect an animal?”

Belle want­ed so bad­ly to slap the grow­ing smile off of his face, but she schooled her expres­sion and said only. “Promise me.”

Gaston smiled broad­ly. “I promise.” And his tone was a dare Belle was hap­py to take.

Great. Help me down.” Belle held her hand out with a limp wrist and Gaston helped her swing off the charg­er and step del­i­cate­ly onto the cobblestone.

Belle cleared her throat and pro­ject­ed her voice. Gaston wasn’t the only one who could act in front of a crowd. “Gaston,” she said, adding a lit­tle breath­less­ness she didn’t have to fake. She was ter­ri­fied. Hopefully it sound­ed over­whelmed by Gaston’s man­li­ness. “I’m incred­i­bly thank­ful for your gal­lant res­cue. And of course I accept your mar­riage pro­pos­al.” She added a curt­sy at the end there, won­der­ing if that was too much.

When she straight­ened, she saw a flash of hor­ror on Gaston’s face and it sat­is­fied some­thing very pri­mal in Belle’s gut. He wasn’t pre­pared for some­one who fought back. And Belle had very lit­tle to lose.
The crowd col­lec­tive­ly gasped. Most of the women imme­di­ate­ly protest­ed. Several crowd­ed Belle in a breath, ask­ing too many ques­tions. The men shout­ed their con­grat­u­la­tions and mobbed Gaston while he still rode the horse, pre­vent­ing any­one from going anywhere.

Gaston was forced to play his gra­cious role and Belle allowed the women of the town to guide her away with a very sat­is­fied smile on her face.

Now Gaston wouldn’t be able to leave, at least for a few days. Belle had no inten­tion of mar­ry­ing him, but there were tra­di­tions to fol­low. Preparations to make. Gestures to be observed. And now Gaston was stuck until Belle could find a way to bring his whole world crash­ing down.

Belle grinned. Madam Armoire would be proud of her.