Belle had bounced back from her illness with an energy that left her too restless to sit comfortably, a book in her hand. Despite Rumpelstiltskin’s warnings to pace herself, the girl had kidnapped the small mountain of laundry that had accumulated during her convalescence and, once it was airing outside, she’d grabbed bucket and an armful of rags and dedicated herself to wash the floors from one wing of the castle to the other.
“You’ll get sick again,” Rumpelstiltskin warned her.
Belle gave one of her pert smiles, gazing at him with warmth. “I’ll stop as soon as I tire myself,” she promised. “I just cannot stay in one place. I think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t do something useful.”
“Next you’ll be asking to pull the curtains down so you can wash the windows too.” He straightened, donning the mantle of master as he wagged an imperious finger at her. “Don’t think you’ll get away with that, dearie. I just saw you try to carry a full bucket down the stairs, and almost hurl yourself to the ground in the attempt. I don’t doubt you’d twist your neck if you tried to climb up a ladder.”
He had meant to rile her up, snuff out that hint of friendliness in her voice so he wouldn’t have to think of how he treasured it. But instead his words made her smile widen. “But you wouldn’t allow that, would you, sir?”
He chose to misinterpret her remark. “Indeed. I forbid it!”
Belle just shook her head, still smiling. “I will stay away from any ladders,” she said, submissively enough until she added, “but maybe you can take down the curtains anyway? It is nearly spring.” She gazed at him sweetly, with the air of a woman who knew she wouldn’t be denied. “I have recovered, but sunlight would still do me good.”
Rumpelstiltskin looked away, uncomfortably aware that the girl now realized that he cared for her well-being. “I’ll think about it,” he said briskly, turning on his heel to escape the scene.
His concern over her health was not unwarranted. Any lord would take care not to lose servants needlessly. But Rumpelstiltskin was still terrified that Belle would come to understand that it was only a minuscule corner of his feelings. Every day he convinced himself that she wouldn’t notice - how could she, when it had taken him by surprise? There was no hint in history that the Dark One could have a true love; he had been sure that his relationship with Cora was the closest semblance of romance he was allowed, steeped in darkness as it was.
Belle’s little shadows were laughable in comparison.
Falling in love with her had been so easy, he hadn’t noticed until his feelings were put to the test. True Love had been his last, desperate attempt to haul her back from the brink of death, more a denial to say goodbye to the sweet girl who'd brightened his life for so few months than an actual hope that it would revive her.
Shock was a poor description to his reaction. It had gotten worse as he had time to contemplate the matter... Whereas any fool would be ecstatic at the discovery that the kiss had worked, Rumpelstiltskin wanted to howl at the unfairness of fate.
A maid could be kept happy within the walls of his castle with the occasional gift and an hour of attention here and there. A maid would never be allowed to become a distraction from the delicate work that was ahead, even in the unlikely chance that she would live the next twenty years in the Dark Castle.
Someone he loved…
Yes, yes, they deserved better, of course. But Rumpelstiltskin sneered at the little image that had crossed his mind at the thought of Belle staying that long. As if! Not even if she knew the truth!
Three hundred years, he thought with a disgusted laugh, and he still remained the hopeful fool.