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Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away Read online

  I watch as she peers closely at the painting, then reaches out with a finger. Her other arm hangs at her side, grasping what looks like a handful of wet flowers. She is tall for a girl, and dressed in a well-made cloak. Her brown hair is pulled back to reveal a regular sort of face, square-shaped, with cheeks flushed from the weather, or the fire, or fear. As she admires the painting, her features relax into something that one might call pretty.

  “She is called Beauty?” Alexander whispers. “Her name should be Plain.”

  “Shh!” I elbow him.

  “Ow! That was my head!”


  The girl turns slowly in our direction, lowering the finger she had been running down the length of a painted tree. I straighten up and tug on my waistcoat. Her eyes grow wide. I get the feeling she is examining every inch of me, taking in the fur not quite hidden by my long sleeves, the nails I cannot believe I forgot to cover with my gloves, the hawk-like nose, the wide face, the lion’s mane of hair that Godfrey combed this morning until it gleamed. Now I feel foolish that I did not tie it back. I clear my throat. “Um, I am the beast. Welcome to my castle.” And then, as I practiced a hundred times this week, I add, “The name Beauty suits you.”

  Her lips move in a twisty sort of way, and I fear she is either going to scream or throw up her last meal. Instead, she looks me directly in the face and laughs.

  “Why are you laughing?” the beast asks, with what I think is a look of bewilderment, but I cannot be sure because of all the hair flopping in front of his face. He pushes it out of his eyes and asks again.

  What should I tell him? That I find it hilarious that Papa would think this man is actually a beast when his costume is such obvious trickery? Or that I have waited my entire life for someone to say my name suits me, and then when someone does, it is someone like him? Or perhaps I should blame my laughter on nerves, like Handsome does. Instead, I hold out the flowers. “These are for you.”

  His bushy eyebrows rise. “You brought me flowers?”

  I nod, then remember how possessive he is about his flowers. Papa picking that rose is what led to me being here. I hold my breath. Even a fake beast can be dangerous when angered.

  But all he says is “Thank you. You might want to put them on the table. I do not want to stab you with my nails.”

  I do as he says, noting that his nails are pointier than the apothecary’s sharpest knife. The large table is made from a single slab of dark oak, and I cannot help admire its smoothness. The stone floors beneath it gleam with firelight from carefully arranged sconces on the walls. All around me are plush couches and colorful lounge chairs and unique pieces of art. I certainly cannot fault him for his taste in decorating. Judging by what I can see, he is in no need of free labor. I force myself to look away from all the beauty around me and stare him full in the face. He is not exactly ugly. Rather, his features do not seem to go together well. Like he reached into a costume bag and pulled out the nearest items and stuck them on.

  “No one has ever brought me flowers before,” he says, his voice a low rumble.

  “Perhaps more people would,” I snap, “if you did not dress up like a beast and threaten people’s lives.”

  “Dress up?”

  “Forgive my rudeness, for I do not mean to insult you in your own home, er, castle, but this is a pretty poor costume. The wig is much too long, the nails are obviously stuck on with some kind of glue, and the fur, well, the fur simply looks ridiculous, all blotchy like that. And part of it is green.”

  I hear what sounds like muffled laughter behind me, but when I spin around I see no one. Papa had said the beast lived alone, so it must be the storm picking up again. I continue. “I have seen a man nearly your height before, but no one could be as wide as you. Clearly you have pillows under your clothes. And your nose! It must be made out of wood and poorly worked into shape. Why you would go to these lengths simply to frighten an old man into sending you his daughter as a servant I cannot imagine.”

  The beast stares at me, then squares his shoulders. “’Tis no costume, I assure you.”

  I know I should hold my tongue, but his lies are simply too much to bear. “You frightened my father nearly to his grave with your lies, and now you shower me with them as well? Shame on you.”

  His eyes fill with water. Could he be about to … cry? He blinks rapidly and looks around the room as though looking for some support in the shadows. Then he says, “Please, come see for yourself. I will not hurt you.” He steps closer and bends down. His hair is within arm’s reach now. “Pull,” he instructs.

  I hesitate, then my anger rises up again. I grab a handful of the coarse hair and give a soft tug. Then a harder one. Then a full-out yank.

  “Ouch,” he says, backing away.

  I stare in surprise. Not a single hair came out in my hand. The beast leans over the back of the couch and neatly slashes a pillow with just one fingernail. I swear I hear a gasp from across the room, but we are still alone. He quickly turns the pillow over and pats it once, almost like he’s apologizing to it.

  “All real,” he says, wagging his fingers in the air. “Trust me, I would not have them if I had a choice. They make even the simplest chore quite difficult. Forget trying to wash my face or even lace up my boots. I have run out of ointment for my gashes.”

  I back up until I bump against the side of a large chair. My mind is a whirl. Could he possibly be telling the truth? Is he half a man and half an animal, or a talking animal? Or a mixture of many different animals? If such a thing is possible, then are all the other things possible, too? Was Veronica right to believe in unseen forces after all? And trust him? How am I supposed to trust such a creature as this?

  “Do you need to lie down, Beauty?” he asks, with a note of genuine concern. “I am indeed a beast, but I will not hurt you. Someone once told me my bark is worse than my bite.”

  I study him from across the room. He is large, but I am fast. I could probably run out the door and be gone before he could lumber after me. But as he awaits my answer with an expression both hopeful and hopeless, I realize I cannot run away. I am not a quitter and I made a promise. “Were you … were you born this way?”

  He shakes his head, then pushes the hair from his eyes again with a bit of annoyance. He should just tie it back. “I was the victim of a curse. But more than that I cannot say.”

  “So magic is real, then?” I ask, holding my breath.

  He nods. “It would appear so.”

  I sink down into the chair. “Witches and goblins and fairies? Princesses that sleep a hundred years?”

  “I cannot speak to all of those,” he says. “Only to the witch.”

  “Was she … horrible?”

  He grimaces with the memory, then says, “Not at first.”

  I feel a tiny door in my heart open up for the beast. Yes, he frightened Papa and basically kidnapped me, but something truly terrible has befallen him. Unless perhaps he did something truly terrible first! “Why did the witch curse you?” I ask, narrowing my eyes at him. “A punishment for an evil deed? Did you cheat or lie or rob an old woman of her last penny?”

  “What? No! Why would you think that?”

  Now it is my turn to shrug. “In the stories, witches do not simply go around cursing people. The person usually does something to bring it upon himself.”

  He begins to pace, his huge feet thumping against the floor. “Well, your stories must be wrong, then, for I did nothing to bring it upon myself.” Then he pauses. “Or nothing that I know of, anyway.”

  “You do not sound certain of that.”

  He scowls. “Can we talk about something else, please?”

  For some reason that makes me laugh. “What do you have in mind, the weather? It is early for a winter squall, is it not? Is that what you prefer we speak of?”

  Another chuckle behind me, but again, it belongs to no one. Perhaps all this talk of magic and curses is muddling my thoughts and making me hear things. “I think I w