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. This is the last chapter that will be available for free, after this, they’ll only be up for one week. If you miss a chapter or would like to support projects like this, join my Patreon.
Belle used her hip to back into the bookshop’s door and push it in. The little bell jingled. She carried two steaming mugs of tea in one hand and her basket in the other, full of paper, pencils, and half-remembered sketches. No one moved in the bookstore and the lights nearest the door were unlit. She was early.
Bella stood in the doorway and called out, “Lukas! Are you in the back? I brought tea!”
He hollered and Belle gave him a minute to wend his way from the back office. She lifted the mugs when she spotted him. “Come sit with me. I have an amazing tale to tell you.”
Lukas grinned. “Please don’t tell me you finished the trilogy already? I just gave it to you yesterday!”
“I tried!” Bella smiled, “But someone borrowed the book before I could finish.”
Lukas took one of the steaming mugs and wrinkled his nose at her in confusion. He held the door so she could select their seat outside the shop. Belle set her basket down in her preferred corner.
“You’re not going to believe it,” she said. “But I think there’s someone living in the old castle.”
Lukas froze with the tea halfway to his lips. “You saw a person in the castle? Someone from the village?”
“Not exactly.” Belle pulled the loose paper from her basket and spilled them across the table. The pages were littered with amateur sketches. Belle wasn’t a practiced artist. But she’d rushed home last night and put pencil to paper as quickly as she could before the memory of that afternoon faded. She spread the sheets and selected one that suggested the entire body of the creature she’d seen. Large hoofed feet, shaggy legs, a massive torso, the head of a goat, mane of a lion, and antlers the size of an elk or moose.
Lukas took the paper with wide eyes and carefully set his mug of tea on the table.
“My god,” he said. “You saw them?”
“Standing just across the courtyard. I could have thrown a stone. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Belle shuffled her papers and found another sketch, this one of the long face and towering antlers. “They seemed… almost scared of me.”
“They’ve been hiding up there for years…” Lukas trailed off, his eyes fixed on the drawing.
Belle touched his arm. “Do you know them?”
Lukas started. “No,” he said putting the drawing down and recovering his mug. “No, don’t be silly. But you’ve heard the rumors about hauntings and ghosts and such.”
“This was no ghost.”
“No,” Lukas agreed. “But there was once a curse put on the family that lived in that castle. A curse that turned them all into beasts.”
Raucous, forced laughter burst in front of their small table as Gaston cut into their conversation and sat himself down on a chair without invitation. He put one elbow on the small table, tipping it to the side as he leaned and crossed his legs to cut off Belle’s escape route.
Belle snatched her tea off the table before it could spill and held it close. She fought to keep the wrinkle of disgust off her face and failed.
Gaston wore the same hunting outfit as yesterday. Red and leather, the brass buckles polished to a shine. Belle frowned at the thin sword he wore on his hip. Even more showy this morning than usual. She suspected Gaston owned nothing more than a closet full of red and leather hunting gear.
His eyes gleamed at Belle as if Lukas didn’t exist. “I couldn’t help but hear you talking about a monster in the woods.” He tilted his head forward so his blond hair fell over one eye. Maybe he thought the look was sexy. Belle felt ill. He continued, “You know, I’ve killed every sort of creature around. You should come to my lodge and see the trophies.”
Belle bristled as she gripped her tea. “I don’t know anything about a monster.”
“Oh, well,” Gaston snatched the drawing off the table that Lukas had seen. “This certainly looks like a monster to me.” He barely scanned the paper before looking up at Belle with wide eyes. “You don’t have to be afraid. I will protect you, Belle.”
Belle was shaking, but not with fear. More like fury. She glared at Gaston and kept her head high. “I don’t want your protection.”
The books never dealt with a creature like Gaston. The stories Belle read were full of adventures and trials, of course, but good women always triumphed over evil men in the end. The bad guys didn’t saunter around town with their false smiles and win over every person they came across so that some days, the heroine felt she was the only one who saw her enemy’s true face.
“Ah…” Gaston rolled the paper and stuck it into his belt. “You need it, though. Don’t you see, I hear there’s a beast on the loose.”
Lukas stood suddenly, his hands tight around his tea mug. “The only beast here is you, Gaston. Leave. Or have you taken a sudden interest in reading?”
Belle covered her mouth to hide the grin that popped up. She wasn’t the only one who saw Gaston for what he was.
A flicker of disgust rippled over Gaston’s face before his mask of genteel friendliness fell back into place. He smiled at Lukas and waved his fingers in a shooing motion. “Why don’t you pick out a book for me while Belle and I have a chat. Alone.”
“Not on your life,” Lukas growled.
Belle glanced between the two, then out at the street beyond, seeking anything at all that might help. Gaston wasn’t known for picking fights in public, but he’d been involved in more than one brawl at the tavern and Lukas wasn’t a fighter. He was an old man, for one. And a researcher. A bookstore owner, not a wrestler. Gaston towered over him in height alone, never mind weight.
She couldn’t slip away like last time, dodging around the table and into the afternoon crowd. It was still early and Gaston had blocked her path with his thick legs, like a pile of tree logs.
Rionen, the baker’s apprentice, walked by, leaving the well with her bucket full of water. The only person in town at this hour. If only Belle come later in the day when the square was busier.
Then Belle spotted a woman in an elegant blue dress and had a sudden spark of inspiration. Belle leaned up and raised her hand to catch the woman’s attention. “Laurien!” she said with enthusiasm and delight. “Laurien, you’re just in time.”
The woman met Belle’s eyes and her look narrowed in suspicion. Her golden hair piled high on her head and dotted with pearls looked a little overdone for a morning walk and she clutched a blue purse that matched her dress. She dismissed Belle in the next heartbeat, but her eyes tripped over Gaston and Belle saw her freeze in place.
Laurien was not a friend of Belle, but she was a big fan of Gaston and between the two, Gaston was a much better reason for her to approach.
She patted the hair on her head and made directly for the table, her shoes clicking delicately on the cobblestone.
Gaston reacted immediately. He threw a hard look at Belle as he scrambled to stand clear of the table and chair before Laurien arrived, but once again his mask of generosity wouldn’t allow him to run.
Belle gathered her things and sipped at her tea as Laurien tittered her good-mornings and Gaston bowed over her hand.
“Laurien, I’m so glad I spotted you.” Belle said, standing with her full basket and cup of tea. Lukas read her intent and helped her step away from the table. Bless the man. “Gaston was just telling me how he was hoping to meet with you today. He has quite a story to tell you about some… hunt.”
Belle couldn’t bring herself to call the creature she’d found at the castle a beast or a monster. She’d seen intelligence in their dark eyes. And she didn’t want news of them to spread around town if she could avoid it.
Laurien put a hand to her breast and leaned closer to Gaston, all suspicion of Belle washed away at the idea Gaston was thinking of her. “You must tell me all about it,” she insisted. “I have every one of your hunts memorized.”
Quietly, Lukas and Belle moved away from the table. Gaston shot them a final irritated look that he had to cover as Laurien took his arm and steered him away from the bookshop.
It wasn’t until they walked past the well and out of sight that Belle released a huge breath of relief. She chugged her cold tea, annoyed that Gaston had ruined the morning.
Lukas handed her his empty mug and she put both in the basket.
“That was quick thinking, calling Laurien over,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how to get him to leave.”
“I can’t imagine why she’s out this early. And so dressed up. But lucky for us, I guess.”
“Perhaps she heard Gaston would be out early too.”
Belle grimaced. “Do you think she got dressed up to have him for herself?”
Lukas shrugged. “I’ve seen stranger things happen in the name of love.”
“Love.” Belle shuddered. “I don’t know who could love a man like Gaston, but I suppose there’s someone for everyone.”
Lukas put a hand on Belle’s arm. “The castle,” he said, changing the subject. “Maybe you should stay away for a few days. Until Gaston finds something else to chase.”
Belle nodded. She didn’t like it, but Lukas was right. If Gaston thought he could kill something to win her over, he really was living in a different world. Curiosity ate at her, but she could wait.
“In that case,” she said. “I’m going to need a new book to read.”
Lukas smiled and held the door open.