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!”
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.
“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.
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