“Beauty,” he said, his voice a low rumble from the shadowy side of the table. “Will you marry me?”
The richness of the wine still clung to her tongue, and it was that which made her head swim, she was sure, and her breath catch on her reply. “Beast,” she said, and did not know what more to say. Outside, the rain was pounding on the casement, and the wind was coiling around the tower with a voice like hounds giving tongue. Even here, in the warm, close quiet of the Beast's library, everything was stirring, oh so slightly: the heavy velvet curtains quivering on their poles, the candles dancing to reveal sudden glimpses of the golden tumble of his mane and the shadowed darkness of his eyes, her fingers shaking as they curled around the stem of her empty glass.
He was rising from his seat, and she could feel the movement more than see it, as if the air itself was pressed aside by his presence. She imagined how it must feel to move so softly in a body like that, all the power of those muscles and sinews so controlled, and did not realise until he backed away that he had taken it as another rejection.
She shot out her hand without thinking and caught at his furred hand.
It was soft and so very, unexpectedly, warm that she flushed herself in sympathy. Her own hand felt so small and fragile in comparison, and she turned her palm to fit her fingers against his, her fingertips against the rough nubs of his sheathed claws.
“Beauty?” he asked, his voice slower and puzzled, and it made her flush again. The last few years had been too full of jeering, shrill-voiced boys, quick to mock the newly poor. She hadn't realised how much she craved courtesy, soft-voiced and low, until the Beast first spoke to her from the dark end of the hall.
“Don't go,” she said, and closed her fingers around his. She wanted to pull him out of his shadows, let the light fall on him so she could finally see what she had only glimpsed.
His fingers clenched hers quickly in return, and there was something so uncertain in it that she rose to her feet, hearing the silk of her skirts rustle, obscenely loud in the sudden quiet of the room, and stepped around the table to stand before him. She could see him a little better now: the heavy arches of his brows, the short horns above his forehead, the bulk of his shoulders and the surprising softness of his mouth. She could hear him breathing, a little fast but still as steady as the floor beneath her feet, as the walls that enclosed them.
One hand wasn't enough, so she reached with the other one to touch his cheek. His fur was longer here, a little thicker but still wondrously soft. She moved her hand, feeling how it parted under her fingers, until she found the bare damp heat of his lips.
“Beauty,” he said into her palm, his breath gusting hotly against the base of her fingers. “Beauty, you have not answered my question.”
When they had been rich, she had been too young for the dance of flirtation and seduction, but she had seen how others played. She stepped a little closer, so close she nudged between his spread knees to press against the edge of the chair. She arched her smile and murmured, looking down into the mystery of his eyes, “And what can I expect from this marriage?”
“Love,” he told her, and she felt his tongue dart against her palm, a quick dart of heat that made her gasp. “Fidelity. Honour.”
“That is not what I meant,” she managed, but her words came out breathless, rather than teasing. She wanted to press herself forward onto his lap and wrap herself around him, feel the soft stroke of fur against her lips, her cheeks, the bare skin above her low collar. Had she ever been modest at all, she wondered, if a little wine and a low voice and the barest brush of his tongue could make her this shameless?
“Speak plainly, then,” he told her. His tongue slipped between each finger and then he drew back, dipping his head as if abashed.
Had she made him shy? Was that in her power? Emboldened, she leaned forward and down, brushed her cheek against his, and said, her mouth so close to his that she could feel the fur of his cheeks stirring under her breath, “What can I expect from our marriage bed?”
He moved, a sudden surge up to seize her arms and lift her. She fell forward as her feet left the floor, clinging to him as he swung her round into the lit end of the room. She saw the shadows fall away through the gold of his mane as it fell over her bare shoulders, and she bit back the cry she wanted to make, not sure if he was about to take her to bed or cast her out.
But it was only to the fireplace that he took her, sinking to his knees on the soft hearthrug. Cradling her, he said into the curve of her neck, “Look at me, then, Beauty. Look at what you're seducing.”
She sat back against his arms, here in the glow of the firelight, and looked at last.
His eyes were as golden as his mane, no whites to them, round and intent on her. His horns were bare bone, smooth and gleaming, butter yellow in this light. His nose too was leonine – blunt, black-ended, with wide nostrils and there were fine whiskers below it. Only his mouth was human, so out of place in that face that it looked like a deliberate attempt to twist it into something vile.
He wasn't human, she couldn't deny that. But he was glorious.
Those golden eyes narrowed, and she realised that she was wetting her lips, that her chest was beginning to heave as her breathing quickened. Before he could protest again, she reached up, winding her hands through the golden fall of his mane, and kissed him.
His mouth opened under hers, his tongue twining around hers, and her fists clenched in his mane as heat rushed through her, flushing her cheeks, pooling in her breasts, collecting in dampness between her thighs.
Then he ended the kiss and drew back, and she could read the wonder and bewilderment in his inhuman eyes. “Beauty,” he said again, his great hands spread across her back.
“You are the beautiful one,” she told him, kissing the corner of his mouth.
“I was made to repulse you,” he confessed, eyes sad. “My own, untouchable Beauty.”
“You can touch me,” teasing his mouth open again, hands cupping his cheeks. “You don't repulse me.”
“I might,” he murmured, kisses lingering on her lips. “I might yet.”
Impatient, she sat back and found she didn't need courage at all. “Take your clothes off.”
His eyes widened in surprise.
The wicked smile was easier the second time. “You said I needed to see you. So, take your clothes off.”
His clothes were as fine as hers, layer on layer of them, and she wondered if he loved the brush of silk as much as she did, or whether it frustrated him to press his strength into such confines. For a moment, she thought she had risked too much.
Then, his gaze not leaving her face, he shrugged his coat off. The fur on his forearms had been pressed flat, and as she watched, tongue caught between her teeth, it began to spring up, blurring the strong curve of muscle. His waistcoat went next, his fingers unsteady on the buttons
Her pious father had named her Duty, but over the years, her name had changed. She had never been an obedient child; she wanted too much.
Her Beast shook his shirt off and she sat back a little to see him properly. He was broad, under the soft sweep of the fur that grew darker and finer as it narrowed towards the clasp of his breeches. She wanted to rub against him, stroke him not just with her hands but with her bare skin; imagined how it would feel to be pressed down below that silken warmth.
He had stopped undressing, and she pouted a little. She could see the bulge in his breeches and could not understand – surely that was uncomfortable. There was no point in being modest now, so she said, “Don't stop.”
He looked abashed, her glorious powerful Beast. “You are a maid. I would not like to fright-”
“I'm not afraid,” she said, and reached out herself. She didn't know how to unfasten the ties, and her hand faltered at the nudge of his cock through the soft cloth. She had read her fill of smutty novels, but she had never seen a man naked. Wanting more, she brushed her fingertips against soft cloth and felt it leap against her hand.
He gathered up her hands, kissed her fingers again, and said, “Let me.”
She drew back, pressing her hands to her own throat to stop herself from reaching out as he slowly shed that last layer of cloth. She was burning up again, and it wasn't the heat of the fire that made the brush of silk against her breasts and along her thighs so tortuous. Watching him, she let her hands slide down to cup her breasts, pressing her dress against her hard nipples, her back arching as more heat shimmered through her.
His cock was darker than the rest of him, rising sleek and hairless from dark hair. She lifted her eyes from it to look at him, let her lips part as she tried to put all her want into her eyes. Watching him, she slid her fingers under the edge of her bodice, teasing the edge of her nipple.
He snarled and lunged forward, clawed hand slashing towards her. She heard silk rip, felt the barest score of claws between her breasts and then he was forcing her down onto the rug, his hips slamming into hers.
She cried out, and he froze. She could see her reflection in his eyes: her bare, heaving breasts, her dark tumbled hair, the brightness of her eyes.
She rocked her hips up, wanting more of that pressure, and he breathed in, whispered, “You are not afraid.”
She had expected to be, when this day finally came and some suitable husband came to deflower her. Now, though, with him, she just wanted more. Pulling one arm free of his grasp, she reached up to tangle her hands in his mane and tugged him down.
The weight of him was no surprise, but had not guessed how his fur would shiver against her breasts, or how much hungrier his kisses would be than before. Her skirts trapped her legs, stopping her from coiling herself all around him, but she surged up, and kissed him and kissed him.
“Fearless Beauty,” he whispered, pulling back for a breath, and she stroked her hands down his back, feeling the muscles move, as he pressed a kiss below her ear.
Another, to the side of her neck, shocking a moan from her. “Wanton Beauty.”
Then more, down from the hollow of her throat. “Did you imagine this, Beauty, when your father told you he had sold you to a monster? Did you want this? Did you want me to seduce you? Or did you think I would tear the clothes from you and take you? Did you want me to ravish you, Beauty?”
Before she could try to put together an answer, his mouth closed over her breast, tongue teasing her nipple, and she could only whimper. There was a galaxy beneath her skin, a million stars about to blaze into light.
His hand was stroking down her side, gathering up her skirts, and she moaned as the rough edges of his claws stroked the inside of her thighs. She spread her legs, amazed at how slick she had become.
Then he stilled, his head dropping between her breasts, and sighed, “I forgot. I forgot my claws. Oh, Beauty, I want to touch you.”
“Touch me, then,” she begged, stroking her own sides through his fallen mane. “Please.”
He shuddered and then he lifted his head, and he was smiling, and she was sure she had chased the shyness out of him now. She lifted herself up to kiss that smile, but he was already moving down her body, under her skirts. She wanted him close again, and was about to demand he come back when she felt the brush of whiskers against her knee and the first soft kiss on her inner thigh.
It made her shiver, and the next one, further up, made her sigh, and then again and again as he worked his way closer to her heat. The rush of his breath against her nub made her shake, and then he was licking her slowly, tongue exploring every crease.
She screamed, falling back into her elbows, and he twisted his tongue around and around and around until she could do nothing but wail and shake and clutch at the rug. His soft hands were stroking up and down her thighs, holding her open as she threw her legs around him, toes curling as he jabbed his tongue against her and her world filled with light, brighter than the candles.
When her mind cleared again, he was holding her against his shoulder, one hand curved around her hip as he pumped into the other, his breath fast and desperate.
“In me,” she whispered, because she had always been the girl who wanted more. “Please, inside me.”
He turned his head to face her, eyes wild and golden and strange, and said, “No.”
“No?” she echoed, indignant.
“Not until we're married, Beauty,” he gasped, and she could feel how he was rocking up into his own hand, hear the stutter of his breath. “When we're married – when – I'll take you on silk sheets – take you hard – oh, my love, I'll lie on grassy banks and you – you'll ride me until – oh, and I'll kiss you, kiss every part of you – and I'll linger on – on the places that make you moan – and then, when you're screaming – for me, screaming for me, I'll slide into you, oh, and I'll have you, Beauty, you'll be mine. Mine – mine – oh, kiss me, Beauty, kiss me now.”
So she kissed the cries from his mouth, ran her fingers through his fur, and, before many days had passed, she made him hers, forever after.