Maurice returned to Villeneuve the following evening. Despite having sold most of his wares at the market, his heart was heavy with disappointment. Once Belle had helped him unload, they went inside for dinner, and he promptly explained why.
"The windmill box broke just when I arrived in La Fontaine. I hit a bump in the road and it fell out of the wagon. It smashed straight against the cobblestones. By the time I was able to get it back from all the feet and hooves that had trampled on it, it was pretty well done for."
"Oh Papa, that's terrible!" Belle said, frowning at him in sympathy. "You worked so hard on that one too."
"Yes, well there's no use crying for shed milk, my dear. I doubt I would have gotten a good price for it anyway. It turns out that merchants aren't interested in purchasing music boxes with dioramas of domestic life anymore. Pastoral landscapes and scenes from Greek mythology are all collectors care about now. I only wish I'd known that before I started the blasted thing." He shook his head and sighed.
Belle reached across the table and patted her father's hand consolingly. One of the challenges of living in a rural town was that news took twice as long to travel here as it did in the major cities. Whenever new art trends hit the markets, Maurice was the last to know about them. It was why he often said that making money as a country artist was like shooting a pistol blind, with no guarantee that you'd ever hit your intended mark. Of course, the easiest solution would be to move to a city, but Maurice claimed he liked it better here because it was "safer." Belle had questioned this statement on several occasions, but kept her thoughts to herself, knowing she'd get nowhere if she tried voicing them aloud.
"Anyway," Maurice continued, waving his hand dismissively, "I've already ordered the replacement parts I need, so no harm done. I just need to wait for them to arrive in the post so I can start the repairs. In the meantime, I'm going to work on some simpler boxes, seeing as the windmill may not sell as well as I'd hoped."
"I know you'll fetch a good price for it, Papa," said Belle, with the unwavering confidence she had always had in him. "Nobody puts as much time and detail into your work as you do. These merchants would have to be fools not to recognize your talent."
"I hope you're right." Maurice smiled appreciatively. "I certainly wouldn't say no to a bit of recognition after all these years. And I also know how long you've been waiting to move out of Villeneuve so we can start our next adventure. Believe me, that day will come sooner than you think. I'll find a way to get us that money, even if I have to take my business to our neighbours. Say, you don't suppose that Gaston fellow would like a portrait commission, do you?" His eyes twinkled mischievously.
Belle snorted. "To be honest, I don't think he'd be able to hold still for that long. He can't even walk through the village square without stopping to preen himself and admire his reflection. He'd make a terrible model."
"Good point. I won't ask him then." Her father was trying to lighten the mood, and Belle appreciated it. After the humiliating ordeal she'd faced in the village square a day ago, she too was praying for an opportunity to leave this town; sooner rather than later.
"So," Maurice continued after taking a few bites out of the roast chicken dinner his daughter had made for him. "Anything interesting happen while I was away?"
"Well… I got a new book." Belle paused for a moment, then added, "I also went to the Château de la Rose yesterday to speak with the Prince." She hesitated again, feeling a bit embarrassed disclosing the rest. But she'd never hidden anything from her father and wasn't about to start now. "And..." she continued, "he asked me to stay for dinner."
Maurice spat out the water he'd been drinking from his cup, causing Belle to duck out of the way to narrowly avoid getting sprayed in the face. "You ate dinner with the Prince?" he gasped, staring at her in disbelief.
"I know it sounds absurd, Papa, but it's true!" Unable to contain her eagerness, she described the event from start to finish: Mr. Potts's suggestion that she speak with the Prince about reforming the schooling system in her village, getting a ride to the castle, meeting with His Highness, talking with him over dinner about her interests in reading and Shakespeare…
"By Jove," Maurice remarked once she had finished. "I had no idea that Prince Adam was in the habit of treating his subjects so generously."
"I didn't know either," Belle concurred. "But I mean… I'm sure that his reasons for doing so were harmless. He just wanted to get to know me better so he could understand why I wanted the village girls to attend school with the boys. That's all."
"Or… maybe he fancies you," Maurice suggested with a smirk.
Belle laughed and lowered her eyes. "I doubt that. Just think of how many people he interacts with in a single day. I'm sure he's already forgotten my name."
Even as she said it, Belle didn't completely believe it. She had been thinking a lot about that strange connection she'd felt with Prince Adam last evening, and whether she'd ever experience that kind of closeness with someone again. At the same time, a part of her worried that their bond had been a figment of her imagination. After all, the Prince could have only been acting nice to her because he'd felt bad for her situation and the efforts she'd taken to seek an audience with him. And maybe she'd been overly excited about speaking with someone who didn't think she was odd for having hobbies like reading and inventing. While Belle considered herself perceptive, she also knew that her ability to read people and situations wasn't entirely perfect.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. "I'll get it!" Belle volunteered, who was sitting closest to the front of the cottage.
Opening the door, she was met by a young man dressed in a gold and brown suit, not unlike the one she'd seen Lumière and Cogsworth wearing when she'd visited the castle the day before. "Bonsoir, mademoiselle," the man said, stooping himself down into a low bow. "I have an invitation here for a Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier?"
"That would be me," said Belle, furrowing her brows.
"Parfait." Smiling, the man handed her an envelope with a seal bearing the Prince's royal crest. "On behalf of my master, Prince Adam de Bauffremont, your presence has been requested at an exclusive formal gathering."
"It has?" Belle took the envelope from the man in surprise. "What sort of gathering?"
"A summer solstice party, mademoiselle. The Prince hosts one every year for the nobility in the area, and for you too, it would seem. You'll find all the necessary information written inside the envelope."
"I see." She bit her lip. "Well, thank you very much, monsieur."
"My pleasure. Passez une bonne soirée." The man tipped his hat and made his way back down the porch. Puzzled, and half-wondering if this was some kind of hoax, Belle shut the door and returned to her father.
"Who was that, Belle?" Maurice asked curiously.
"It was a messenger from the castle. He... just gave me an invitation to Prince Adam's summer solstice party."
"Really?" He raised his brows intriguingly. "But I thought you said that the Prince has already forgotten your name."
"I guess I thought wrong." Overcome by curiosity, Belle broke open the seal and unfolded the parchment to reveal a letter written in beautiful calligraphy. Holding it close to the candle on the table, she read:
His Royal Highness, Prince Adam de Bauffremont kindly requests the company of Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier in a celebration of the upcoming summer solstice, scheduled to take place in the grounds of the Château de la Rose on the 20th of June at three o'clock in the afternoon. Please retain this invitation to present to the concierge upon your arrival.
Robert-Alexis LePlume, Official Secretary to His Royal Highness
Belle couldn't believe her eyes. The letter seemed genuine, but she was still confused. What could have possibly possessed the Prince to invite her to his party, of all people?
"You did what?! What could have possibly possessed you to invite her?"
"I'm sorry, Master," said Lumière. He stood in the doorway of the Prince's bureau, trying to look innocent, but failing. "I was under the assumption that you would look forward to her company again. Was I mistaken?"
Adam ran his hand through his hair and shook his head, appalled by his maître d's clear lack of seriousness in the matter. "The summer solstice party has always been an exclusive royal function, Lumière. Nobility from all over this side of France will be attending. No one in my family has invited anyone from the lower class to attend since well… ever."
"All the more reason for you to break with tradition." Lumière grinned. "Besides, I doubt that your stellar reputation will be marred by the presence of one peasant girl. And you did pay quite a bit of attention to her when she came to speak with you earlier this week."
Adam's face flushed at Lumière's insinuation. It seemed that there were no secrets when it came to his resident "love expert"—a fact that he found to be more of a hindrance than a help. "My reasons for inviting Mademoiselle Gagnier to dine with me were strictly professional," he justified, not in the mood for revealing his true feelings on the matter. "She had some good ideas on how to make education more accessible to the girls in her village, and I wanted to hear them."
"Je vois. And yet… you've never invited a subject to dinner before, or arranged a carriage to take them home after," Lumière noted. "Come now, Master. The truth is, the other staff members and I are getting worried about you. You're nearly twenty-six years old and you're always so focused on your work. You never have time to relax or socialize the way you used to. I'm not saying that your strong work ethic isn't a welcome improvement from well… before. But if you keep this up, you'll become a stuffy shut-in, just like Cogsworth! What's the harm in taking a bit of time to focus on something outside of drafting bylaws or addressing complaints from your subjects? Even the Emperor of France takes a day off from his duties from time to time."
"I'm not a shut-in!" Adam protested. "I just… prefer working alone in my bureau to socializing with other people. That's all."
"Sounds like the textbook definition of a shut-in to me." Lumière smirked. "Look, Master. I'm not saying you have to fall in love with the girl. But at least give her a chance, peut-être? According to Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth, she is quite the conversation piece in her village. Keep her around, and maybe you'll find out why."
Adam groaned. If only Lumière knew the real reason why he didn't want to "get to know" Belle better: he was already familiar with her outcast status, and how falling in love with her was not only inevitable, but a death wish. All of his past attempts at wooing Belle had ended in misery and destruction, which was why he had to burn that bridge while he still had the chance. But the fact remained: Lumière had sent her an invitation. And as embarrassed as Adam was by his servant's impudence, he'd look even more unprofessional if he wrote her a second letter, explaining the mix-up. He would simply have to act like her invitation had been intentional, treating Belle as any other party guest.
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to have her, if she comes," he conceded. "But Lumière, pull a stunt like this again, and I swear… I'll make you put all the lights off in the castle for a week."
"Me, Master?" Lumière pointed to himself, puzzled by the Prince's unusual choice of punishment.
"Yes, you. Now tell Mrs. Potts I'll be down to take my luncheon at one o'clock. You may go."
Still confused, Lumière bowed to the Prince and left the room.
Once he was gone, Adam crossed his arms and turned his gaze to the window. He still needed to finish up his paperwork for the morning but felt too restless to continue after what his maître d' had told him.
It had been over five years since Agathe had restored Adam to his humanity and his original timeline. Since then, he had done his best to put the experiences of his alternate realities behind him, taking what he'd learned from the past to improve his future. Sure, maybe he still dreamt about Belle some nights and wondered what she was doing in Picardy, then Villeneuve. As a prince, he had full access to the kingdom's census records, meaning he'd known exactly when she and her father had moved to the little village two years prior. But he dismissed all these habits and thoughts as harmless behaviours, nothing that years of distractions and royal commitments couldn't stamp out of him. Belle would fall in love with a man who was truly her equal, and Adam would be at peace, knowing he'd helped make that life a reality for her. As long as she was happy, then so was he.
But then, Belle had made a surprise visit to his bureau two days ago. All of Adam's hard-built convictions came crumbling to dust. For a moment, he'd feared that her appearance was a trick of the Enchantress, come to torment him again after all these years. It was only after Belle had addressed him with an uncharacteristically stilted formality that he realized she didn't recognize him. This fact had disappointed him, but also comforted him. For if Belle didn't remember him, then that meant that Agathe had kept her promise. Their days of passing time together in the castle and embarking on their perilous journey to Brocéliande were nothing more than inconsequential dreams.
And so, Adam played along with Belle's obliviousness. Throughout their meeting and subsequent interview, he'd tried not to overstep any boundaries, or betray anything in his countenance to reveal how well he already knew her. When he invited her to dinner, it was out of courteousness, not affection. He'd done nothing beyond what had been expected of him as a gentleman and host of his castle. At least... that's what he kept telling himself.
Adam would never forgive Lumière for sending Belle that party invitation without his permission. But he was certain she wouldn't want to come. She'd hated being a "charity case" at Princess Amandine's birthday ball, so why would she feel any differently about attending this aristocrat-only function he was hosting? She would surely decline his invitation, and then they'd continue to live their lives as distant acquaintances. Adam refused to interfere with whatever fate had planned for Belle, regardless of Lumière's sly attempts at playing matchmaker.
Taking a deep breath, Belle opened the door to Madame Fayette's dress boutique. A bell jingled as she stepped inside, doing nothing to ease her addled nerves. I guess there's no turning back now.
Belle had never been to the town dress shop before. This was because she normally made her own clothes or mended and repurposed the ones she'd bought from the previous villages she'd lived in with her father. As a result, she was completely unprepared for the sight that awaited her: a trapezoid-shaped room filled with lace bonnets, fancy handbags, powdered wigs, shelves of fabric and spools of ribbon in nearly every colour and pattern imaginable. A handful of mannequins in flamboyant-looking dresses had been placed around the floor, meant to give customers a sample of the clothes their seamstresses could make. Belle found the setup to be dazzling, but at the same time, overwhelming. In the past, she'd lived in towns where the only place to buy material for clothing was the general store. The selections would be limited to a small corner of the shop, and the fabrics sold would be plain and practical, as needed for everyday use. This place looked like a closet for a princess in comparison.
Suddenly, one of Madame Fayette's daughters emerged from the backroom behind the counter. As was her habit, she was wearing enough makeup to pass for a doll and a pink frilly dress that would have made her blend in easily with the mannequins on the floor. Upon seeing who her customer was, she frowned and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Well now. If it isn't Mademoiselle Rat de Bibliothèque, come to grace us with her presence."
Belle grimaced. Her first instinct was to respond with a snarky comment of her own, but then she remembered that she was here to do business. That meant swallowing her pride and trying not to do anything that would cause a scene… for once. "Bonjour… Marie-Élise," she said, praying she got the girl's name right. The Fayette triplets weren't identical, but Belle had never known them well enough to tell who was who.
The seamstress rolled her eyes. "It's Marie-Éliane. But call me Éliane, for goodness' sake. I don't know what my parents were thinking, giving me and my sisters the same first name."
"Oh." Belle didn't know how to respond to that. She'd known many Maries in her life, which was why she was grateful her parents had given her the Christian name of Anne-Isabelle instead. It wasn't an exceedingly rare name combination, though she much preferred it to Marie, Catherine, or Thérèse. Still, she thought, having the name of one of the most revered saints in France is no reason to be unpleasant to other people.
"Is your mother here?" she continued hesitantly. "I was hoping to have a word with her."
"What about?" Éliane asked, raising one of her dark brows suspiciously.
"About… getting a new dress?"
Éliane snorted. "Are you sure you're in the right store? I don't think we carry the dresses you're looking for here. See, we only sell things that real women of class would want to wear. Not homely pinafore dresses with your skirt hiked up to your waist so everyone can see your pantaloons." She gestured to Belle's own dress to make her point.
Belle clenched her jaw indignantly. She had a good reason for keeping her skirt tucked up as high as she did, though she doubted that sharing that reason with Éliane would do any wonders for their relationship. "For your information, Éliane, I've come here to get a dress to wear to a party Prince Adam has invited me to," she responded curtly. "Your mother did say she'd give me a discount if I ever wanted to buy one from her."
"Prince Adam invited you to one of his parties?" Éliane looked at Belle skeptically, then stifled a laugh. "Oh, that's a good one! Let me guess. Next you'll be telling me that some fairy godmother came to you in a dream and told you you're the lost princess of a nonsensical kingdom. Dieu ait pitié."
Belle sighed. Maybe it would be better to get hold of Madame Fayette another way. This conversation was going nowhere fast and her urge to flick some dirt into Éliane's eye was growing stronger by the second.
But then, to her tremendous relief, the old seamstress emerged from the backroom, carrying a roll of colourful fabric in her arms. "Ah, Belle!" she exclaimed, addressing her new customer with a friendly smile. "So good to see you! Marie-Éliane"—she nodded to her daughter—"Put this roll of Damask up on the empty shelf by the window for me, please."
Éliane rolled her eyes but took the fabric from her mother to do what she had asked. With Miss "Wicked Stepsister" out of the way, Belle now had Madame Fayette's fully undivided attention.
"And what can I do for you today?" Madame Fayette asked, clasping her hands in front of her. "If you're looking for some ribbons, all our orange ones are twenty percent off until the end of this week."
"Merci, Madame Fayette." Belle returned the seamstress's smile, albeit nervously. "Only… I'm not here to buy ribbons. I just received an invitation to attend a summer solstice party at the Château de la Rose, and well… I'm afraid I don't have anything suitable to wear. You once said that you'd make me a dress at a reduced price if I ever needed one. Could I still take you up on that offer? I promise I'll pay whatever it costs you to make it."
"Absolutely, my dear," Madame Fayette replied, looking pleased and a little surprised by Belle's request. "But for a party at the castle, you say? That's certainly a tall order to fill in such a short time! Why the summer solstice is less than three weeks away."
"I know, and I'm sorry for the short notice." Belle bowed her head apologetically. "I only got my invitation last night. But it doesn't have to be anything too fancy or time-consuming to make. Just something that will look… better than what I'm already wearing, that's all."
"Well..." Madame Fayette considered Belle's offer, perching her chin on her hands. "I suppose I could put something together that fits that description." She turned her attention to a book on the counter and flipped through it intently. "This book is full of sewing patterns for all sorts of dresses that have come in fashion this past decade. I've yet to find a design in here that I can't make myself. Personally, I think that a bodice with a square neckline would look very becoming on you. And then we could pair it with a layered skirt with ruffled trims. Maybe add a pannier underneath for good measure. Thank goodness I still have some in stock."
"That sounds brilliant," Belle agreed, who only had half an idea of what the seamstress was talking about. "There's just one thing, madame. I don't plan on wearing stays."
"No stays?" Madame Fayette looked up at Belle in shock, as though she had uttered something highly blasphemous. "Whyever not? They're practically a requirement for a young lady who's going to be socializing with the Prince and other important members of upper-class society. You have to wear them!"
Belle nervously fidgeted with her hands. She knew that her idea to go without stays was bound to raise a few eyebrows, but since when had she ever stuck to convention? It wasn't like "you must wear stays" had been written on her party invitation. And as a farm girl, it seemed unrealistic that she'd be expected to own them anyway. The Fayette sisters wore them sometimes, but that was because they were as vain as peacocks, and their occupation as seamstresses to the townspeople and minor nobility in the area permitted it. They didn't spend their days bending over plants and tinkering with inventions as Belle did. "With all due respect, madame, I'm not terribly fond of stays," she admitted. "They seem so constricting, and well… I honestly think that they're nothing but a recipe for bruised ribs and suffocation."
"Oh really?" Éliane scoffed from behind her. "I bet you're only saying that because you don't have the money to buy them, or the dugs to fill them out."
"Marie-Éliane!" Madame Fayette snapped. "I'll not have you insulting the customers in my shop, thank you very much. Now go to the backroom and fetch me a roll of chintz, please. The one we got in last week should do nicely."
Éliane shot her mother a murderous glance before storming into the backroom. Once she had left, Madame Fayette shook her head and sighed. "I'm so sorry about that, dear. I really don't understand my girls sometimes. I make them the best dresses in town, I teach them how to sew, knit, embroider, and crochet. Not every woman in Villeneuve can boast about knowing a trade they can make a formal business out of. But despite everything my daughters have been blessed with, they've always been so bitter and unhappy. It makes me glad that there are girls like you in the world, who know how to act as nicely as you look."
"You give me too much credit, Madame Fayette," Belle said, cheeks burning faintly. "Just because I seem 'nice' doesn't mean that I'm not without my faults."
"Ah, but the Lord looks favourably on those who are humble, charitable and submissive in spirit, dear," Madame Fayette persisted with a smile. "Don't you forget that. I suppose I can modify the gown to fit with a chemise or a robe battante if you aren't keen on wearing stays. But you'll have to come in with the ones you're planning to wear so I can fit the bodice properly."
"Thank you. I'll make time for that for sure." Although Belle still didn't trust the seamstress to overdo her party dress, she felt better in knowing she had agreed to make it without the need of the medieval torture device they called stays.
As Madame Fayette continued to flip through her pattern book, Belle glanced into the backroom, overcome by a deep sense of envy for Éliane and her sisters. She would have given anything to have a mother and siblings to teach her the finer points of sewing, crocheting, embroidering, knitting, and running her own business growing up. So how could a girl who was beautiful and well-provided for be so nasty and unsatisfied with her own economic prospects? It seemed to Belle that some people in this town truly were a mystery.
With the development of Belle's dress underway, it didn't take long for rumours to spread about her invitation to the Prince's summer solstice party. Belle suspected that Éliane had been the one to spill the beans but knew there was no point in confronting her. In a town where everyone knew each other's business, the truth was bound to have revealed itself one way or another. Still, she couldn't say she enjoyed the reactions she received in the next few days, which seemed to come from two different types of villagers: those who were curious and envious of her situation, and those who were bitter and skeptical, certain that she'd made up the story in a desperate plea for attention.
Elisabetta Guillot, a Corsican woman whom Belle often went to for jams, revealed that she'd always wanted to go to a ball as a little girl and begged Belle to tell her all about it once she got back.
Professeur Doucet, the town bookseller, believed that the party would be a wonderful opportunity for Belle to mingle with some of the brighter and more educated minds of French society. He insisted that she ask the Prince about his library, which was bound to be full of rare books that hadn't circulated the market in years.
As Belle waited outside the bakery for Monsieur Dechesne to bring her some bread rolls, she overheard Madame Vanier and Madame Babineau, two older women of the village, gossiping about her by the fruit stand.
"It's true, Léonie," Madame Babineau was uttering in a faint voice, though still loudly enough for Belle to hear. "His Highness sent Belle an invitation to a party he's hosting at the end of the month. She was the only person in the village to receive one."
"Bonté divine! Why on earth would he invite her?" Madame Vanier questioned, clucking her tongue in disapproval. "She's already disgraced herself by reading books in public and flaunting her undergarments like a prostitute. In a party of nobles, she'd practically be a laughingstock."
"Maybe she convinced the Prince to invite her," Madame Babineau suggested haughtily. "I heard from Isolde that she went to see him at the castle a few days ago, just before sunset. I reckon she knows her father's art business isn't going to take off, so she made the Prince an offer he couldn't refuse... if you catch my meaning."
Madame Vanier cackled. "With her pretty face and those unholy books she reads, it wouldn't surprise me. It's a shame that Père Robert isn't doing more to curb that unruly behaviour of hers. Doesn't he know that a girl who reads for pleasure is ten times more likely to become a debauchee or be unfaithful to her husband? I'm afraid our little jezebel is going to meet an unfortunate end if she doesn't repent soon."
"I couldn't agree more, mon amie. But perhaps her day of reckoning will come sooner than she thinks. If she and the Prince have started some sort of dalliance, I'm sure he'll find her much less appealing once he gets her with child. He'll probably keep her around until the birth, then find an excuse to toss her away like the trash she really is."
At this point, the baker had returned with the bread rolls, and Belle was seething with rage. However, by the time she'd paid Monsieur Dechesne, collected her purchases and turned around to give the old harpies a piece of her mind, they had already left the stand.
Her absolute worst experience came the following afternoon, after finishing her weekly confession with Père Robert. As Belle descended the church's front steps, her mind set on going home to finish reading Candide, she came face to face with Gaston, who immediately flashed her a sickening attempt at a charming smile. Belle rolled her eyes and walked on past him, pretending not to notice. She'd expected the braggart to leave her alone after his failed marriage proposal last week but clearly, his stupidity was not to be underestimated. With a mind full of delusions and an oversized ego, she sometimes wondered how he didn't keel over from the weight of his own big head. And yet they say I'm a funny girl...
"I was hoping to run into you, Belle," Gaston began, completely unfazed by her standoffishness as he followed her through the marketplace. "I heard the Prince invited you to his summer solstice party. Congratulations!"
"What do you want, Gaston?" Belle grumbled, hoping to cut this conversation short so she could walk home in peace.
"Why, to extend my compliments to you, of course," he replied with a grin. "It's not every day that one of our own gets invited to the Château de la Rose as a guest. You must be excited. Say, if you need a chaperone for the afternoon, might I suggest allowing me to go with you to the castle?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "You know how... predatory some of these noblemen can be, ruining the virtues of young, innocent peasant girls for sport. They might try to take advantage of you... unless they see you with a strong and capable man like myself."
Belle cringed. Gaston clearly had more than chaperoning her to the castle on his mind. If she let him have his way, he'd likely spend the whole party trying to steal a kiss from her, while telling anyone who'd listen about how their engagement was a done deal. She felt sick just thinking about it. "Why, Gaston, I didn't know you cared so much," she quipped. "But I'm quite capable of handling myself, thanks. And I've already planned to leave with Mr. Potts when he starts his shift for that afternoon, so your escort is hardly necessary."
The conversation should have ended there, but as always, Gaston was annoyingly persistent. "I really wish you'd reconsider, Belle," he said, stepping in front of her to block her path. His formerly good-natured expression had become stern and serious. "You might regret it later."
"Gaston, get out of my way, please."
"I know you feel something for me," he continued, ignoring her request, "but all these books you're reading... they're stopping you from seeing what's really important. Don't you understand? From the moment I met you, I knew we were meant to be together! All your life you've been dreaming of finding a purpose, and what better purpose than to become the wife of the most handsome and desirable bachelor in Villeneuve? There's nothing I would deny you, no prize I wouldn't bring you if you'd only put aside these ridiculous fantasies and give into me! You and your father would want for nothing."
He fixed her in a needy, imploring gaze which would have made any other woman in town swoon, but not Belle. All she felt was nausea and a desperate need to get as far away from him as possible. He's really laying it down thick now, isn't he?
"I'm sorry, Gaston," she said. "But my answer is no."
"Come on, Belle. There's no need to be coy. No one says no to Gaston!"
"I believe I just did." Her eyes darted past his shoulder, pretending to notice someone approach them. "Why hello, LeFou! It's so good to see you!"
It worked. Gaston glanced behind, giving Belle just enough time to dart around him before he could realize he'd been tricked. She ran out of the marketplace as quick as a doe, leaving her suitor to recover from his rejection and bruised dignity once again.
By the time Belle returned to the cottage, she was about ready to toss a shelf's worth of books at Gaston and the villagers from dealing with their insensitive comments all day. She was only grateful that her father was home, as she now had someone to vent her frustrations to instead of suffering in silence.
"I don't think I should go to the party anymore," she confessed as she watched him take apart what was left of his windmill box so he could start his repairs.
"What?" He looked up at her in surprise. "Why not? You've already put the deposit down for your dress, haven't you?"
"Yes, Papa." She bit her lip hesitantly. "It's just that... the people in town have been talking about me recently, and not in a good way."
"They talk about me, too," Maurice pointed out.
"I know, but not like this. This is different." Taking a deep breath, Belle told him about her day in the market, first overhearing Madame Babineau and Madame Vanier gossiping about her and her lack of virtue, then running into Gaston, who'd tried to pressure her into being his wife… again. The whole ordeal had left her feeling enraged and a little embarrassed. Even after years of learning to turn a deaf ear to other people's comments, there were still some days when she could feel herself slipping back into her old childhood insecurities, like a wound that had never fully healed itself. Today had been one of those days.
After she had finished her venting, Maurice shook his head and snorted. "Sour grapes, the lot of them. They're just jealous that you got an invitation to Prince Adam's party and they didn't. Of course they'd want to make you feel bad about it! But you, my dear, are not going to let their cruel words get to you, because you are your mother's daughter through and through. And remember what I told you about your mother? She was—"
"Fearless," Belle finished. "I know." Recalling their last conversation on the subject brought a small smile to her face. If her mother could defy social expectations while still finding someone who accepted her for who she was, then surely Belle could do the same?
"And just think about it," Maurice added encouragingly. "Even with all those naysayers calling you out for inventing and reading books, the Prince invited you to his party, not them. He obviously saw something special in you that everyone else in this village has failed to notice. That alone should tell you how subjective people's opinions can really be. Pass me that screwdriver over there, would you?"
Belle reached across the table and handed her father the requested tool. "I suppose you're right," she agreed. "Still… just thinking about this party gets me into knots. No one I know will be there, except for Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth. Are you sure you don't want to come with me? I think the Prince would understand if I brought you along as my chaperone."
"I appreciate the offer, but I'll pass," Maurice politely declined. "I know you'll do just fine on your own. Besides, my dancing days are far behind me now. And well… something tells me that these aristocrats wouldn't want a man with a dull personality like mine standing around and ruining their afternoon of fun."
"Oh, Papa. You're not dull!" Belle disagreed. "I bet they'll find your occupation as an artist fascinating, given that some of them are art appreciators themselves."
"Believe me, this party is for young people, not old codgers like me," he persisted. "So go on, socialize and enjoy yourself! Maybe you'll meet another nice young nobleman while you're at it. Bonus marks if he's in the market for buying paintings and music boxes like the ones your old man makes." He winked at Belle slyly, causing her to chuckle.
"I'll try to get a good word in for you if I can," she promised. Her father had spent two decades working as a freelancer, so getting a commission from an aristocrat after all these years would be a dream come true for both of them. The money he could make from one painting alone might be enough for them to move out of this provincial town for good.
But beyond giving her father a chance for publicity, Belle saw this party as an opportunity to reconnect with the Prince who'd made her feel like a normal person for the first time in ages. Her curiosity about why he'd invited her had overpowered her insecurities and sparked her interest in going in the first place. She couldn't help but wonder if he was just as eager to see her again as she was to see him.
The weeks passed and the gossip about Belle's invitation died down, replaced by news about the Lacroix family's newest baby boy, and Lucie Villejoin's engagement to Joël Berger, the son of the local blacksmith. Still, Belle went into the market only when necessary, and only at times when she was least likely to run into Gaston. She kept her conversations with the other villagers to a minimum, except when it was with those she most trusted.
On the day of the Prince's party, Madame Fayette came to Belle's cottage to help her get dressed. Belle appreciated the gesture, as she knew she wouldn't have been able to do it all by herself. Even without stays, there were still several steps required in assembling her outfit, including putting on a pannier and two petticoats before being fitted into her actual gown, which had to be fastened to her stomacher using a combination of ties and pins.
Once she was fully dressed, Madame Fayette had Belle sit at her desk so she could style her hair using some hair curlers she had brought over from her dress shop.
"Are you sure you know how to do this?" Belle asked, which was really code for, "I don't trust you with my hair, but I'm too polite to say otherwise."
"Of course, my dear," Madame Fayette assured as she wrapped a curler around a lock of her toffee brown hair. "Remember, I've spent over twenty years practising on my daughters. I could practically do this in my sleep! Now hold these pins for me, would you?"
Belle wanted to point out that her daughters' hair often looked like a poodle's but thought better of it. Besides, it wasn't like she could do any better herself. Her knowledge of hair styling stopped at pigtails, which was hardly an appropriate look for a fancy gathering like the Prince's. So if she looked a little ridiculous, then at least she'd be comforted in knowing that the other women at this party would look the same. She took the pins from the seamstress and let her continue her work uninterrupted.
After finishing with her hair, Madame Fayette added a touch of powder and rouge to Belle's face and invited her to look at herself in the mirror by the stairs. Belle expected to be horrified by what she saw, but instead, she was surprised. Back in the dress shop, she and the seamstress had spent ages going through different fabric designs before agreeing that a solid colour would be best for her, as it was neither too loud nor attention-seeking. The final product: a sky-blue gown with ruffled trims around the sleeves, bodice, and petticoat, had the perfect combination of modesty and elegance. While Belle had been reluctant to wear a pannier at first, she now felt glad that the Madame had suggested it, as it made her dress look fuller and brought out the embroidered white and pink flowers on the sides of her skirt. Her hair wasn't frizzy as she expected it would be but piled neatly on top of her head with a few ringlets hanging loosely behind her ears for contrast. It was a simple yet sophisticated do that helped to emphasize her long forehead and gently curved chin. All-in-all Belle wouldn't say that she was in love with her new appearance but didn't entirely despise it either.
"Oh, and I almost forgot. La pièce de résistance!" Madame Fayette added. She stepped away from the mirror and returned with a straw hat decorated with paper flowers similar in colour to the ones on Belle's dress. She placed it on her head, completing her disguise into a refined woman of upper-class society. "You don't want to be seen without a hat, dear. It will do no good for your complexion. Now let's show you off to your father before Mr. Potts arrives."
Belle called Maurice up from the cellar who wasted no time doting over his daughter's appearance and making some embarrassing comments about how she looked "just as beautiful as her mother did on her wedding day" before the wagon arrived.
"Make sure you don't get your dress caught behind the wheel," Madame Fayette advised as she and Maurice followed her outside. Even from taking a few steps out the door, Belle could feel how much heavier and constricting her gown was compared to her regular working dress. Thank goodness I'll only have to endure it for a few hours.
She rambled her thanks to the seamstress several times before hugging her father goodbye, checking to make sure her invitation was in her pocket, and climbing into the buggy. Butterflies grew in her stomach as she watched her cottage shrink from view, until it was nothing but a small bump on the horizon. She wondered if this was how Cinderella felt on the way to her prince's ball, getting her first breath of freedom after years of wishing for a better life.
Sultan couldn't have chosen a more inconvenient time to break out of his leash. The summer solstice party was in full swing. Nobles were congregating in the shade of the lawn hedges to indulge in conversation and light refreshment as a string quartet serenaded them from the colonnade. Meanwhile, the Prince was darting across the gardens, trying not to panic as he searched under benches and serving tables, calling out for his missing dog. He had broken loose a few minutes earlier, and Adam could hardly blame Chapeau for letting it happen. Even though Sultan was over two years old, he still had the rebellious energy of a pup, with a habit of defying any person in the castle who wasn't his master. Adam wasn't sure if his personality or his nature as a Brittany was more to blame. What he did know was that he had to find him quickly, before he disturbed his guests or ran off into the woods, never to be seen again.
Thankfully, he didn't have to look far before he spotted the dog trying to jump on a woman standing outside the hedge mazes. The woman was trying to reach for him—whether to pet him or shoo him away, Adam couldn't discern. Either way, she was struggling to bend down due to the constricting nature of her blue dress. He strode over to her, relieved to have found his dog, but embarrassed that he had to be such a nuisance on today of all days.
Hearing his master's voice, Sultan spun around and sprinted to the Prince as though they'd been separated for years instead of a few minutes. He stopped in front of him, jumping up and down on the spot and wagging his tail giddily.
"What have I told you about running around and jumping on other people, eh?" Adam scolded. "You were supposed to stay on your leash."
Sultan wagged his tail faster, tongue hanging loosely from his mouth. He was utterly endearing, even to someone as unimpressionable as the Prince, so he sighed and gave him a reluctant pat on the head. He knew he shouldn't be praising Sultan for his bad behaviour, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to let him off the hook this once. After all, he had listened to him when he asked him to come; a significant improvement from his previous attempts at calling him back to him.
With Sultan safely back in his possession, Adam looked up to address the woman who had intercepted him. "So sorry if this crétin scared you, mademoiselle. He's harmless, really. Oh."
He'd caught sight of the lady's face under the shadow of her hat and his heart skipped a beat. It was Belle. The girl who wasn't supposed to come to his party but had miraculously shown up anyway. He didn't know what startled him more: the fact that she'd accepted his invitation, or that she'd gone out of the way to dress for the occasion. Her gown met all the criteria of what was in style for the ladies of court, from her billowing skirt to her ruffled sleeves and layered petticoat. But unlike the superfluous magenta gown she'd worn to Amandine's birthday party, this gown helped to emphasize her natural beauty instead of detracting from it. In a word, she was a vision, and Adam was speechless.
"M-Mademoiselle Gagnier," he stammered, nearly forgetting himself as he took in her radiant appearance. "Forgive me… I almost didn't recognize you! I'm so pleased you could join us."
"It's a pleasure to be back, Your Highness," Belle said graciously, dipping herself down into a practised curtsy. "Thank you for inviting me."
"That dress on you is just…" He blinked at her in amazement as he tried formulating an accurate but not too emphatic compliment. "You look wonderful."
"Thank you." She blushed. "A seamstress in my village made it for me."
"You don't say? Well, she did a fine job." But even as he said it, Adam couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt. That dress must have cost Belle a fortune on her father's salary, especially if it was custom-made. Had he known that she was planning to attend his party, he would have arranged for someone to make her a new gown free of charge. In fact, he knew of a certain resident prima donna who would be perfect for the job.
"How did you get here?" he asked, feeling obligated to make conversation with her, considering all the trouble she'd gone through to make herself presentable for him.
"Your stable master, Mr. Potts, offered me transportation," she answered. "I caught a ride with him on his buggy before he started his shift at the castle."
All the way here in a buggy? Adam raised his brows in alarm. Now he really felt like an imbecile. If Lumière heard about this, there'd be no end to his gloating and teasing. "Forgive me," he apologized. "I was so busy overseeing party preparations. I should have inquired to see if you needed a carriage."
"Oh, that's all right," she assuaged. "I like riding in wagons! I can see so much of the countryside and forest along the way. It's almost like going on an adventure."
He had to smile at Belle's unfettered enthusiasm, as unnecessary as it was. Lord knew how much he'd missed it after five years of interacting with uninspiring nobles, some of whom put his own former selfishness to shame. "Regardless, I'll ensure that you get a proper ride home this evening," he promised. "At least let me recover some of my dignity. This is Sultan, by the way." He gestured to his dog, who was observing his interaction with Belle with quizzical eyes. "I'm sorry again if he scared you. I can assure you that it won't happen again."
"He was no problem at all, Your Highness. One of my old neighbours used to have a dog just like him as a matter of fact. Hello, Sultan." She stepped closer to him and waved at him with a friendly smile. "Are you going to behave yourself now?"
Sultan slowly approached Belle and sniffed her skirt without jumping on her this time. Seeing that he was beginning to settle down, she knelt down to pet him, his tail wagging excitedly the entire time.
"He seems to like you," Adam noted curiously.
Suddenly, Vincent emerged from around the hedge maze with Amandine following closely behind him. Both of them had volunteered to search for Sultan after Adam had found out he'd gone missing.
"Ah, so you found him, then?" Vincent asked, upon seeing Belle rubbing the dog's belly in the grass.
"Yes, Vincent," Adam confirmed. "Though I had a bit of help." He subtly motioned to the newcomer while trying to hide his embarrassment. Not only did he have to contend with Belle being here as a guest, but he also had to think about how to present her to his other invitees, who would be very interested in knowing why he'd brought her here in the first place. Vincent and Amandine would be understanding enough, but not all his guests would be the same way. And the last thing Adam wanted was for Belle to leave here today feeling like he'd brought her to this party to be ogled at like an animal in a royal menagerie.
Bearing this in mind, he cleared his throat and said, "Mademoiselle Gagnier, I'd like you to meet my cousin, Marquis Vincent de Breil de Pontbriand and his fiancée, Princess Amandine de Lanzac. Vincent, Amandine, this is Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier from the nearby village of Villeneuve."
"Enchanté, mademoiselle," Vincent said, bowing to Belle and glancing at her curiously. From behind him, Amandine did the same, only with a curtsy.
"Enchantée," Belle replied with a nervous curtsy of her own.
"I had the pleasure of meeting Mademoiselle Gagnier earlier this month," Adam explained, moving in beside her in hopes of making her feel less self-conscious. "She came to the castle to voice some concerns she had about the schooling in her village. She's very well-read, despite not having a formal education, and invents machines to hasten the time it takes to do her chores at home. I thought it a shame that someone so accomplished has never had the chance to interact with like-minded people before. So... I decided to invite her here today so she could meet some."
It was all a bunch of rubbish of course, but sometimes Adam impressed himself with his ability to invent stories on the spot. Judging by their intrigued expressions, Vincent and Amandine were completely sold on his explanation.
"Is that so? Well, I certainly hope we won't be a disappointment to you, mademoiselle," Vincent said, addressing the young woman with a cordial smile. "I've known my cousin for nearly all my life, and he's never invited a commoner to a party before. If he's deemed you worthy of being here, then he must think you're important!"
Belle let out a forceful chuckle. "Merci, seigneur. But there's honestly not much here that can disappoint me. I haven't been this far from my village in years. The fact that I'm attending this party as a guest is a wonder in itself."
"Hmm, so she's impressionable, well-mannered and intelligent," Vincent noted. "Now I must know the full details of how you two met."
"I adore your dress, mademoiselle," Amandine added, gesturing to Belle's outfit thoughtfully. "That shade of blue goes just perfectly with your complexion."
Belle looked momentarily stunned by the Princess's compliment before she remembered herself and smiled. "Thank you, Your Highness. And that necklace on you is very… pretty."
"Merci!" Amandine beamed as she placed a hand over her pearl necklace. "It was my mother's."
So far so good. Adam thought, a nervous smile of his own creeping over his face as he observed the conversation unfolding before him. Perhaps Lumière's suggestion to invite Belle here wasn't such a terrible idea after all.
The group's attention was briefly distracted by a throng of orchestra members making their way across the gardens with chairs and music stands.
"Looks like they're setting up for the dance," Vincent observed. "Will you and Mademoiselle Gagnier be joining us then, coz?" He glanced back at Adam; brows raised suggestively.
Adam directed his gaze back to Belle, who seemed a little nervous with the idea of dancing with her host but said nothing. She probably didn't think it was her place to speak her mind, given her outsider status. And yet, for all her rehearsed politeness and commitment to dressing for the part, Adam badly wished that she would. For it was Belle's fiery personality and blatant disregard of social norms that had made him fall in love with her in the first place.
You should ask her for a dance, said a voice in his head that sounded a bit like Lumière's. It's only right.
"Certainly," he confirmed. "But I'm going to bring Sultan inside first and make sure he stays there. Mademoiselle Gagnier"—he glanced over at her again—"would you care to accompany me? There's something I'd like to show you while you're here."
"Oh." She bit her lip reluctantly. "Well, of course, Your Highness."
Smiling again, Adam extended an elbow to her, telling himself he was doing it to be courteous, and not because he wanted to be closer to her. Still, he couldn't help but feel a certain thrill as she let her arm entwine with his, remembering all the times they'd done this in the past, back when they were far closer than what they were now.
It was a long walk from the castle's main entrance to their destination. To pass the time, Adam decided to engage Belle in some polite, if rigid small talk.
"So, mademoiselle," he began. "What do you think of my party so far?"
"It's incredible, Your Highness," she replied sincerely. "I've had to pinch myself twice to make sure I haven't drifted off while reading one of my books. I've never been to a gathering in a place as beautiful as this before. And all those guests out there—well let's just say that they're a very different crowd from the ones I'm used to seeing in my village. I never even imagined I'd meet a princess in person until today."
"Princess Amandine has a heart of gold," Adam opined. "It may not surprise you to know that many reputable suitors had their eyes set on her before she settled for my cousin. Well, I shouldn't say settled—they're marrying for love, not convenience. There may be others here who'll be more… judgmental of your station, but as long as you're with me, you'll have nothing to worry about. The key is to act natural and not be nervous. So far, you're doing a great job."
"Thank you." She smiled appreciatively. "By the way, did you really mean what you said about bringing me here to 'socialize?'"
"Of course!" He nodded vigorously, possibly a little excessively so. "Truth be told, I've never cared for this divide that exists between the lower and upper class. So many French nobles look down on their subjects, all because they were born into poverty instead of abundance. If we're all the same in God's eyes, then shouldn't it be our job to treat everyone equally, regardless of their birthright? I may not be a miracle worker, but if I start inviting commoners to aristocratic functions, then perhaps I'll find a way to break down those prejudices."
"I see." Belle seemed intrigued with this answer. "And I suppose I'm to be your 'first mate' in this initiative of yours?"
"In a way, yes."
He expected her to take this as a compliment, but instead, she frowned in disappointment. Her gaze dropped to the floor as she said, "I thought that… well, never mind." She shook her head and smiled again. "It was very considerate of you to bring me here today, Your Highness. Where are we going anyway?"
"It's a surprise." He grinned. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll like it."
He spent the rest of their walk telling her about the history of the castle and the significance of the paintings they passed. He knew that Cogsworth would be a much better tour guide, given his extensive knowledge of European history and Baroque architecture, but Belle seemed to enjoy his commentary all the same. It was the only way Adam could distract himself from his nerves and all the questions he was too afraid to ask her, like why she'd decided to come to his party, and if he'd given her the wrong impression at their last meeting because he'd definitely arranged that dinner as a gesture of hospitality, and nothing more.
But eventually, his list of things to say to Belle ran thin, and they fell into a heavy, though not completely awkward, silence. Sultan was trotting happily beside them, stopping now and then to sniff the leg of a suit of armour, or a spot on the floor with a particularly distinctive odour. The Prince didn't really care if his dog wandered a little inside, as long as he didn't urinate on anything along the way.
"How long have you had Sultan for, Your Highness?" Belle ventured to ask, seeing as their earlier conversation had run its course.
"About two years," he answered. "I bought him from a farmer when I was returning from a visit with a marquis in Beaucerf. The man fixed a wheel on my carriage and I wanted to compensate him for his efforts. He mentioned that he was giving away a litter of Brittanies on his farm, and well… I'd never had a dog before, so I thought I'd take a look. The moment I saw this little rascal playing in the pen with his siblings, I knew I had to have him. We've been thick as thieves ever since."
"Sultan is your first dog?" Belle looked at him in surprise. "Forgive my presumptuousness, but I thought it was customary for aristocrats to keep a pack of hunting dogs on their property. Especially with all the land you own. Was I mistaken?"
"No," he admitted. "My father used to keep some hunting hounds when I was a boy, but that's all he used them for—hunting. He never believed in keeping dogs as house pets and I was in no position to reason with him. It wasn't until he died that I started to give some more thought into raising a dog of my own. It—well, he's a good distraction from all the work I have to do during the week. Sort of like reading."
Belle smiled, understanding his analogy. "And the name, Sultan," she continued. "It's a bit unusual, isn't it? Did you choose it on a whim, or does it mean something to you?"
Adam's heart did a nervous flip-flop in his stomach. Belle's question seemed innocent enough, but the wording of it hit a little too close to home. Fidgeting restlessly with his hands he replied, "It sounds silly, but I named him after a character from One Thousand and One Nights. I was um… reading it at the time."
It wasn't the entire truth, but fortunately for him, Belle didn't seem to notice. "That's such a clever idea!" she remarked. "I wish I'd thought of using a book character's name when we named our horse. We just call him Philippe—well, that's what the breeder called him anyway. If I had a dog though..." She scratched her chin, thinking. "I suppose I'd name him after a character from a Shakespeare play. Maybe Brutus. Or César…"
She continued to debate over what Shakespeare name would work best for a dog as Adam reflected on the parts of Sultan's backstory that he couldn't share with her. The truth was, he hadn't only named his dog Sultan in reference to a character from One Thousand and One Nights. He'd named him in reference to the last book he and Belle had read together during the curse. A book he'd failed to finish reading since then, because every time he tried, he'd hear her voice in his head, haunting him like a restless ghost. So he let it sit on his shelf and collect dust, along with several other books he used to read with her in their old timeline. Another part of his beastly past buried and laid to rest.
The Prince's first few months of raising Sultan were a challenge, but it was a challenge he was willing to embrace. He was frustrated with himself for still clinging to Belle's memory after three years. His recurring dreams about her returning to the castle didn't help matters. He was desperate to move on and Sultan was the perfect distraction. Using some tips from the staff and instructional books he'd found in the library, Adam trained his dog in basic commands in only six weeks. Once Sultan accepted the Prince as his master, their bond became near-inseparable. In the warmer seasons, they would go out for long walks in the forest, hunting together for rabbits and birds. In the colder seasons, Adam allowed Sultan to sleep with him on his bed. The dog must have had an internal clock built into him because he always remembered to jump off the mattress before Chapeau came by in the mornings. Sultan wasn't a replacement for Belle—nobody ever would be—but Adam never once regretted his decision to bring him home. The dog was always happy to be in his company—something Adam sorely needed after a near-decade of hating himself. And given his inability to keep a courtship for longer than a week, he often wondered if a dog was the next best alternative.
He turned a corner with Belle, bringing him back to the task at hand. They had arrived at their destination. Opening the door, he beckoned her to step inside with a gentlemanly flourish. "After you, mademoiselle."
It was worth bringing her here just to see her reaction as she caught sight of the library. Traces of her old self broke through as her eyes lit up with unbridled joy, overwhelmed by the display of books surrounding her. She clapped her hands to her mouth while Sultan circled her and wagged his tail, not understanding why she was so happy, but emulating her all the same.
"I know how much you love books," Adam explained, "so I thought it only prudent that you see my library once before leaving here today."
"It's wonderful," Belle breathed. "I've never seen so many books in all my life!"
"Yes, well it's not exactly the biggest castle library in France," he replied, trying to sound modest. "That would go to the Château de Chantilly in Île-de-France. But this one has a few perks. That chair by the fireplace is a great place to sit when the sun sets. The light from the window leaves a very interesting pattern on the floor."
"Have you really read every one of these books?" asked Belle, who clearly had more on her mind than discussing interesting light patterns on the floor.
He snorted. "Well, no. Some of them are in..." He was about to say Greek but stopped himself, sensing this conversation was becoming oddly circular. "Latin."
She laughed. "Well, I think it's magnificent, Your Highness. I could spend all day curled up in here with a book, escaping from reality. You're so lucky to have all this space to yourself."
"Hmm. Well, now that you've mentioned it..." He scratched his chin. "My resident librarian, Mr. Webster, had a bad fall about a week ago and my physician says it will be a while before he'll be well enough to return to work. My head of household has been trying to find a temporary replacement for him, but so far, none of my current staff members are qualified enough for the job. But you're a capable, literate, book-loving individual." He surveyed her contemplatively. "I could recommend you to him… if you're interested."
"You're offering me a position?" Belle's dark brown eyes widened in surprise.
"Yes, well it would only be temporary," he clarified. "A few weeks, or however long it will take for my librarian to return to work. You'd be performing simple tasks mostly, like keeping the shelves organized, doing a bit of auditing, that sort of thing. I can't imagine you'd need to come in for longer than two or three days a week."
He was trying to make it sound boring, not wanting to dash her hopes too much. Truthfully, he was only offering her this position because he wanted to compensate her for the expenses of her dress, without admitting that he'd sent her party invitation by accident.
A part of him hoped that she would decline his offer, citing other commitments, or needing to look after her father. Instead, she responded with a confident, but unexpected: "I'd be honoured!"
"Oh." He stared at her in surprise. "Well... that's excellent then! I'll have you meet with my majordomo, Mr. Cogsworth, before you leave today so he can run you through the specifics of the position. I understand that the two of you have met before?"
"Yes." She nodded. "He's from my village."
She continued to glance around the room and examine the titles on the shelves, drifting away into her own little world. It was with great reluctance that Adam called out her name and brought her back to reality. He still needed to drop Sultan off with Chapeau and return to the gardens before his guests started to wonder what had happened to him.
His biggest concern about employing Belle as his librarian was that it would increase their chances of running into each other. It was only a slight possibility, but enough to make him nervous. His sole consolation was that she wouldn't be in every day and that he spent so many hours working in his bureau; the odds of him catching her alone were very unlikely. Still, he would make a point of avoiding the library on the days she was scheduled to work there, just in case. The key was to distance himself; not to overstep any boundaries or do anything that would send the wrong message about their relationship. He preferred it that way. It was too painful to think of what could happen if he attempted the alternative.
The rest of the party passed by in a happy and whimsical blur. Prince Adam escorted Belle back to the gardens where, as promised, he honoured her with the first dance of the afternoon. Belle could tell he was a skilled dancer, making her embarrassed she hadn't thought of practicing some moves in her new dress beforehand. She didn't believe she was worthy of such special attention, yet the Prince seemed to be pulling out all the stops for her. He was quick to compensate for her whenever she made a mistake or stepped on his toes, and when she bumbled her apologies to him, he only shook his head and laughed, assuring her it was all in good fun and she had nothing to be ashamed of.
Later that afternoon, the Prince introduced Belle to his other guests, whose reception to her ranged from friendly and welcoming to cold and indifferent. At one point, a group of invitees called him away from her, leaving her to rejoin the company of Princess Amandine, Marquis Vincent and some other aristocrats who looked to be around her age. The group took an immediate interest in the young newcomer, asking her several questions about the former towns she lived in, the inventions she was working on and the kinds of books she liked to read. Belle was pleasantly surprised by how politely they all treated her despite her commonness, perceiving her as more of an intellectual than an eccentric. Princess Amandine took an especial shining to her, offering her her fan to keep cool and volunteering to fix some pins that had fallen loose from her hair. It was obvious to Belle that the Princess knew a thing or two about maintaining appearances, though unlike the Fayette triplets, she treated Belle in an accepting, sisterly way, which made her instantly likeable.
Once the party ended, Prince Adam presented Belle to his head of household so they could start putting her to work. Cogsworth seemed surprised by his master's choice of librarian, but as he was in no position to disagree with him, arranged a time for her to come in later next week to begin her employment.
When Belle boarded the Prince's carriage that evening, it was with a deep sense of contentment, like she'd just finished reading a satisfying chapter from an adventure novel in which she was the unlikely protagonist. She waved to the Prince through the window and the smile on his face brought a small blush to her cheeks, though she couldn't comprehend why. She spent the ride home thinking about books and roses while humming fragments of a melody she'd heard back at the party.
When she got home, Belle didn't even bother changing out of her constricting dress first before filling her father in on everything that had taken place at the Prince's castle.
"My goodness! First dinner, now a job?" Maurice said with a raised brow. "Next thing you know; the Prince will be offering you a mansion."
Belle laughed dismissively. "There's a world of difference between offering someone a home and a job, Papa." And besides, she added to herself, noblemen only gift mansions to their mistresses, and a mistress I am not. Clearing her throat bashfully, she added, "Anyway. I figured it wouldn't hurt to make some extra income for ourselves, especially since it will be a while before all the parts for your music box arrive in the post. Maybe this way, we'll be able to move out of Villeneuve even sooner than we planned."
"I can't say I disagree with you there," Maurice said with a nod. "Erm… you did thank the Prince for giving you the position, didn't you?"
"Only over a dozen times, Papa. For all the times I repeated the word, he must have thought I sounded like a cockatoo."
"I had to ask. Well, I'm certainly proud of you, my dear. In this changing world, I've never understood why a woman shouldn't be able to make a living for herself, especially if she has all the skills and abilities to do so. I know you'll be more than capable. Besides, you've always talked about wanting more than a simple, provincial life for yourself. Maybe this new librarian job is your calling to some higher opportunity."
"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves," Belle replied with a modest smile. "I haven't even started my first day yet. For all I know, I might do a terrible job. But are you sure you'll be all right here all by yourself? You know I won't always be around now if you need me to make you lunch or fetch you something from the market."
"I'll manage," Maurice reassured. "You forget; I was out buying groceries, making lunches, and changing your diapers long before you could say your first word. Besides, you'll only be gone for a few days a week, right?"
Belle nodded in confirmation, then smiled again. In this sleepy little town where nothing ever happened, she was excited to begin this new and unexpected chapter of her life.
The next couple of days were largely uneventful. Belle finished reading L'Ardée, drew out some schematics for a new sewing machine, and went back to Madame Fayette's shop to return her hat and hairpins. Naturally, the older lady wanted to know all the details of the Prince's summer solstice party, including the food he served and the clothes the guests wore. When Belle mentioned that Prince Adam had offered her a position as his temporary librarian, the seamstress practically burst with excitement. She insisted that Belle allow her to make her some more dresses so she'd look fully presentable for the role.
At first, Belle wanted to refuse—after all, asking the Madame for one dress was nerve-wracking enough—but in the end, agreed to her offer, so long as none of the new dresses she made required stays. While Cogsworth had said that Belle wouldn't have to wear a uniform when she began her employment, she doubted that showing up in her farming rags would make a good first impression. Nor did she want to seem ignorant of what was proper or embarrass the prince who'd been generous enough to hire her. Since Madame Fayette was offering her another discount, Belle saw this as a perfect compromise.
On Monday morning, Belle's first day of work arrived. She put on the same blue gown she'd worn during her first visit to the castle (Madame Fayette wouldn't have her new dresses ready until the end of the week at least) and walked to the meeting point on the outskirts of the village to await her transport. As she waited, she meticulously inspected her fingernails for any lingering traces of dirt. The previous night, she'd used up nearly an entire bar of soap to ensure she'd be as clean as a whistle for her new job. But even so, she was worried that she hadn't been thorough enough, or had forgotten to do something else that would bring her personal hygiene into question.
The wagon showed up on schedule. Before Belle knew it, she was back at the castle, making her way through the servants' entrance to meet with Cogsworth. The head of household greeted his new hire with a cordial nod, then escorted her to his office where he sat her down and spoke in great detail about all the procedures and expectations required of her as a castle servant. It was a lot of information for Belle to absorb at once, though she tried her best to look attentive, not wanting Cogsworth to find some reason to dismiss her on her first day of work. When he had finished his long-winded speech, he passed her an employment contract to sign, explained when she could pick up her wages and brought her to the library to begin her real job of the day.
"Above all your duties as the castle librarian, this one is the most essential," he explained to her as he showed her a book of handwritten ledgers. "This is the auditing record Mr. Webster was working on before his injury. Your primary job will be to continue filling out the log where he left off, recording the names of the remaining books in the library and doing an appraisal of the condition they're in. Anything that's torn, dog-eared, stained or water-damaged needs to be added to our records. And do be mindful of the ladders," he added cautiously. "They are strictly for reaching for books from the shelves, not toys. We've already had to replace one this year following an earlier incident."
Belle was too nervous to ask about the specifics of said incident, so she nodded compliantly. "I understand. Will the, erm… Master be around soon? I shouldn't want to disturb him if he comes in to read later."
"Not at all, mademoiselle. The Master left two days ago." Seeing her confused expression, Cogsworth added, "He's gone to spend some time with his family in Pontbriand. You'll have the whole library to yourself, at least until he returns next week."
"Oh." The majordomo obviously meant this as a good thing, but for some reason, Belle couldn't stop herself from frowning. It was strange because until this point she'd naturally expected to see Prince Adam again. Now she wondered what would possess her to presume such a ridiculous notion. The Prince had a kingdom to run and a world of other people to meet with in a single day. It was silly of her to assume he'd put his duties on hold for her when they barely knew each other. But even after reminding herself of this fact, it didn't fully lessen her disappointment.
What does it matter? she chided. She had a job in the biggest library she'd ever laid eyes on—a library that few people had access to in their lifetimes. Her gaze turned to the shelves filled with hidden worlds and voices from the past—all beckoning to her like a mystical siren's call. For at least a week, this place would be her new home away from home. There was nowhere else she'd rather be.
Five hours later, Belle's first shift as castle librarian came to an end. She hadn't gotten through as many books as she'd anticipated, though she was certain she'd get better at it with practice. Following Cogsworth's instruction, she placed the auditing book on the empty shelf by the fireplace, closed all the windows and locked the doors with the key he'd provided her. She would have loved to spend the rest of the day poring over the Prince's private book collection, but as it was, she had chores to finish and a dinner to make. She planned to return home immediately, only her bearings were not the greatest. It wasn't long before she became hopelessly lost, overwhelmed by the castle's endless array of corridors and stairs. Just when she was wondering if she should stick her head into a room to ask someone for directions, she heard a voice calling out from behind her.
"Oho! You must be our nouvelle bibliothécaire!"
Belle spun around. The man who'd addressed her was the same servant she'd seen during her first visit to the castle—the one with the kind-looking face who'd convinced Cogsworth to take her up to see the Prince. What was his name again? Lumignon? Luminaire? He flashed her a pleasant smile that may have bordered on flirtatious, though Belle wasn't experienced enough in that area to know for certain. Not wanting to seem impolite, she forced herself to smile back at him.
"Bonjour, monsieur. I know I've seen your face before, but I don't believe we've been formally introduced."
"Vous avez raison," the man replied affably. "My name is Jean-Eugène Lumière, maître d' of His Royal Highness, Prince Adam de Bauffremont. But you may call me Lumière." He stooped down into a low bow. "And how may I address you, mademoiselle?"
"Belle is fine," Belle answered with a polite curtsy. "Everyone in my village calls me that."
"Ah, la belle," Lumière repeated the word with a fond expression. "A fitting name for a beautiful young lady like yourself. I suppose it's only apt that we should run into each other like this."
"Oh?" She tilted her head curiously.
"I never got to apologize for putting you on the spot when you visited the castle last month," he elaborated, darting his eyes self-consciously. "Truly, I didn't mean any harm by it. You must understand: my master is very committed to his role as prince. So much, in fact, that he puts it above what little social life and personal time he has for himself. And so, I thought that having him converse with someone close to his age would get him out of his shell, at least for a little while. You're still here, so it seems I wasn't wrong in my assumption."
"Not at all," Belle agreed. "Your master has been very kind to me. Though I must admit that I'm a bit surprised. I only wanted to speak with His Highness about reforming the education system in my village. I never expected he'd invite me back to his castle after or offer me a position as his librarian."
"The Master can be a surprising man, even to those who have served him longest," Lumière admitted. "Why, in the past five years alone, some of us would say that he's become a completely different person. In a good way, of course."
"Have you worked for him long?"
"Mais oui. Since he was a tout-petit. I could tell you stories about him going back to when he was growing in his first set of teeth."
Belle smirked. She tried to picture Prince Adam as a toddler with a toothless smile and a pudgy red face, but against his proud and regal bearing, it was an impossible image. Shaking her head, she said, "I'm trying to find the way back to the servants' entrance so I can return to my village. Only this place is enormous, and I seem to have lost my way. I'm a bit embarrassed to ask, but would you be able to help me?"
"It would be my pleasure," Lumière said with another genial bow. "But on one condition. Before you leave, you must permit me to introduce you to the other staff members downstairs. They are all very interested in meeting you."
"Meeting me?" Belle blinked in surprise.
"Of course! We love getting acquainted with our new colleagues, no matter how short a time they might be working with us. It would be an honour to be your official introducteur."
He smiled at her again in a way that was so suave and charming, Belle found it difficult to refuse. The day's still young, she reminded herself. She wouldn't lose a lot of time if she took a later wagon back to Villeneuve. And even if she did come home late, she was sure her father wouldn't mind if dinner was a half-hour or so behind schedule. Having convinced herself, she agreed to let Lumière escort her downstairs to meet with the other castle servants.
Down in the kitchens, Lumière introduced Belle to a group of staff members who were gathered around a table in the center of the room. Belle was already familiar with the Potts family, but had yet to meet Plumette—a maid who was in a relationship with the maître d'—and Maestro Cadenza and Madame de Garderobe—an Italian couple whom Belle had seen performing at the Prince's party the week before. The group was delighted to meet Belle, and insisted she join them at their table for some free snacks and refreshments. To them, this space was their "breakroom," a place where they could unwind and talk freely, with no prickly supervisors breathing down their necks. Belle wondered if by "supervisors" they were referring to Cogsworth but thought it would be improper to ask.
"Enchantée de faire votre connaissance, Belle," Plumette greeted once Belle had taken a seat across from them. "I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when I heard the Master had recommended you for our household. Not to say you're underqualified, it's just a little out of character for him. Normally, he doesn't show an interest in anything that happens outside his bureau. Dites-moi, how on earth did you do it?"
"I didn't do anything," Belle insisted, drawing her knees together sheepishly. "He just told me there was a librarian position available at the castle, and I said I was interested. That's all."
"Well, whatever his reasons, it does my heart good to see the Master expanding his social circles again," Mrs. Potts said with a warm smile. "The only people he invites to the castle these days are his cousins and the nobles he does business with. I've scarcely seen him spend time with someone for the sake of enjoying their company."
"And he seemed so happy about it, too," Cadenza pointed out. "Did you see his face back at the party, grinning and laughing like a ragazzino a Natale? I haven't seen him look that way in years."
Belle's cheeks grew warm, wondering if she was supposed to be privy to this conversation. But even she couldn't deny: The Prince had been smiling a lot at the party, especially when he was in her presence. It was hardly something to get flustered about, yet it still made her feel slightly embarrassed. "Well, what about that servant girl?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Servant girl?" Plumette repeated, raising an inquisitive brow.
"Yes. The Master told me there was a girl who used to work for him at the castle. He didn't say much else about her, only that she left a big impression on him and turned his life around."
"Étrange. I've never heard of such a girl," the maid said with a puzzled frown. "Have you, madame?"
"I can't say I have," Madame de Garderobe concurred with the same confused expression. "Amore mio?"
"Nessun idea," Cadenza echoed. "When did he tell you this, mademoiselle?"
"The first day we met, when we were waiting outside for my carriage," Belle answered. Her face flushed as she admitted this. If the servants didn't know about the girl, then perhaps the Prince had had his reasons for not telling them. Had Belle become a blabbermouth by revealing a supposed secret to his castle staff? "But um, I mean, it's quite possible I misunderstood him," she added, trying to recover from her blunder. "You won't tell him I mentioned that… will you?"
"Not to worry, mademoiselle," Lumière said, moving around the table to embrace Plumette from behind. "Your secret is safe with us. But our master, having a relationship with a servant under our noses? I didn't know he had it in him."
The other servants echoed their agreement and continued to speak around the subject. All except Belle, who grew silent as she remembered how wistful the Prince had looked as he'd described his mystery woman. For the first time since she'd heard about her, Belle wondered if Prince Adam's feelings for the girl were deeper than what he'd implied. The thought made her feel strangely uneasy, though she quickly dismissed the sentiment. So what if Prince Adam cares for that servant girl in a romantic sense? No law in France said he couldn't fall in love with someone below his station. And Belle had no business prying into his personal life anyway.
What she did know was that the more she learned about Prince Adam, the more of an enigma he became. He was like a Gothic fiction novel; plain and unassuming on the outside, but full of unpredictable twists and turns on the inside. And although she had no right to it, a part of her wanted to keep turning his pages until she had uncovered every single one of his secrets.
The fencers were off, scuttling across the room like two crabs locked in combat. Vincent was the first to go on the offensive, taking several timed lunges at his cousin, which Adam parried away with practiced ease. They'd been sparring with each other for five years, but still enjoyed finding ways to surprise and outdo one another whenever Adam came to visit.
That was how it normally went for them, anyway. But not today. Today, Adam could feel his concentration slipping away from him like sand between his fingers. In two more days, he'd be returning to the Château de la Rose to deal with this terrible mistake he'd made. Belle was working at his castle as his librarian, and no way under any circumstances could they run into each other. Even now, he was half-wondering if there was another way he could get her the money for her dress, a way that wouldn't require her to work so close to him.
I could commission Maurice for some paintings maybe, he thought to himself. I'll pay him generously for whatever he makes me and send him and Belle to a new town where we'll never cross paths again. Belle will be none the wiser, and—
His train of thought was broken as Vincent made a sudden lunge for his chest. Adam hastily parried the attack, and tried to follow through with a riposte, but forgot to keep his knees bent as he did. Seconds later, he fell flat on his back, foil flying straight out of his hand.
"Adam!" Vincent shouted, running over to him in panic. "Are you alright?"
"I think so," Adam grunted. He took a moment to assess his pain level. Nothing seemed to be broken or bleeding, so he begrudgingly accepted his cousin's offer to help him back to his feet.
"What's gotten into you?" Vincent said with a frown. "Normally, your ripostes are so impeccable, it's scary! This isn't like you at all."
"Sorry, Vincent. I suppose I've been a bit… distracted as of late."
"You, distracted?" His cousin stared at him curiously. "Well now, that's a first. And what exactly is on your mind?"
"Nothing. Just a trivial matter. Hardly worth making a fuss about."
"It wouldn't be about Mademoiselle Gagnier, would it?"
A look of panic flashed across Adam's face. But it was only for a moment before he remembered himself and assumed a more neutral expression. "No. Of course not. Why would I be thinking about her?"
"Deny all you want, coz," Vincent continued with a knowing smirk. "That straight face of yours isn't going to fool anyone. You still haven't explained your real reasons for inviting her to your party last week, you know. Though based on all the one-on-one attention you were giving her, I presume it was for more than a simple act of gentility."
Adam's ears burned hotly at his cousin's suggestion. He hoped he would have forgotten all about Belle by now, given how many days had passed since the summer solstice party. Unfortunately, once something caught Vincent's attention, he couldn't let it pass without an explanation. His curiosity was relentless—a quality that had already irked Adam on several occasions.
"The truth is, Lumière sent her an invitation, not me," he admitted as he walked over to pick up his foil. "You know how he is… always giving me advice on wooing women like I don't know how to enjoy myself. He thought it would be funny to invite Mademoiselle Gagnier to the castle again after she came to speak with me in my bureau. It was a stupid thing to do, but really, how else was I supposed to address the issue? It would hardly be polite to rescind her invitation, given our former acquaintance."
"Hmm. Well, I think your maître d' had the right idea," Vincent said approvingly. "You're always so busy with your royal commitments, coz. I never see you spending time with anyone who—well, quite frankly might be worthy of courting."
"Me and Mademoiselle Gagnier, courting?" Adam looked back at his cousin in alarm. "Don't be silly, Vincent. We barely know each other. Besides, she and her father are planning to leave Villeneuve soon. They're going to start an art business in a new town somewhere. Even if I were interested in her romantically—which I'm not—I doubt it would work out between us. She's a peasant and I'm a prince. Our lives are too different."
Even to his ears, Adam's excuse didn't sound fully convincing. Vincent seemed to suspect his cousin was hiding something, too, for a skeptical frown appeared on his face. "Well, if you ask me, coz, you shouldn't let social class stop you from pursuing a relationship," he reasoned. "I think Mademoiselle Gagnier is a promising young woman despite her peasant background. Even Amandine had some nice things to say about her, and you know how timid she can be around strangers. And to be honest… I worry about you. You've spent so many years on your own, running your kingdom, entertaining dignitaries, helping the poor. You deserve to connect with someone who can take the weight off your shoulders and bring some healthy unpredictability to your life. I can tell you after meeting Amandine, once you've met your âme sœur, there really is no better feeling."
He smiled wistfully, giving Adam a perfect opportunity to change the subject. "I still can't believe you're getting married," he admitted.
"Aye. I can't believe it myself. And to the most beautiful princess in the country, no less." Vincent sighed fondly. "The only thing that makes me more nervous is knowing I'll be a prince consort in a few months. It'll be some big shoes to fill, and honestly, I'm not sure how good of a job I'll do. Don't be surprised if I show up in your salon one day, begging you for advice."
Adam chuckled. "You'll do fine, coz. As long as you manage your finances properly and take the time to listen to your subjects' concerns, they'll have no reason to look down on you. The key is to not spend your money in excess. I did that once before and well… it was not the wisest decision I could have made."
"But you've come so far since then," Vincent reminded him. "It inspires me to hope that I can do the same."
The two cousins went on to speak about other subjects before returning to their rooms to prepare for luncheon. Once in the dining room, they were greeted by Adam's Uncle Christophe, Cousin Léa and her new husband, Raphaël de Coriolis, the current Count of Vieillerive. The couple had married earlier that year, and like Adam, were visiting the Château de Tourmorne to spend time with the family for the week. As the group ate their lunch together, their conversation turned to Léa and Raphaël's new life in Vertemuraille and Vincent's upcoming wedding to Princess Amandine. Adam smiled intermittently throughout the meal, making light jokes and polite remarks where he could. He was genuinely happy for his cousin's engagement, especially considering that he had arranged the ball that had caused the lovestruck couple to meet in the first place. For him, it had been another way of taking his mind off Belle and the fact that they could have been together, under different circumstances. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he still held firm in his belief that their separation was for the best.
After luncheon, the group went for a stroll in the gardens. Vincent soon engaged himself in a three-way conversation with Léa and Raphaël, leaving Adam to trail behind with Uncle Christophe following closely.
"Adam," the Duke called out to him. "Accompany an old man for a walk, would you?"
"Oh." Adam stopped and looked over at Christophe in confusion. Something in his uncle's tone sounded far too friendly, which he found strangely unsettling. Still, he smiled and answered with an obliging, "Of course, Oncle."
The Duke waited for the others to walk several paces ahead of them before addressing his nephew again. "You know, neveu, I've never told you how grateful I am that you reconnected with us when you did. Here I was at my wit's end, thinking I would never persuade Vincent to break out of his gambling and drinking habits. Then you showed up and helped him put his whole act back together. I didn't think it possible, but I can't thank you enough for all you've done for him."
"Please, Oncle." Adam tugged at his cravat self-consciously. "I barely did anything. Vincent started changing his ways the moment he laid eyes on Amandine. All I did was offer him a bit of encouragement. That's all."
"Even so, you made their engagement possible," Christophe argued. "That's a far greater gift than anything Léa or I could give him. Which brings me to my next point." He stared at his nephew intently. "We need to find a bride for you next. After all, you are of age, and there must be at least a dozen noblewomen who would love to have you. Tell me, have any of them caught your fancy yet?"
Adam's cheeks grew warm. Now he understood why his uncle had wanted to speak with him alone. To talk about that. "Truthfully, Oncle, I'm not sure if I want to marry anymore," he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. "I know it's tradition, only… I'm not sure if it's the right path for me. But please, don't misunderstand me. I'm fully aware of the consequences of not producing an heir and have prepared a contingency plan should worse come to worst. I intend to give my throne to Vincent and Amandine's children when my time comes."
If Adam were having this conversation with his father, he was certain he would have been furious to hear that his son planned to give away his legacy because he was unwilling to marry. Instead, the Duke tilted his head and studied his nephew with an intuitive expression. "You're saying these things because of your parents, aren't you? You're afraid that if you marry for convenience as they did, you'll end up in an unhappy relationship for the rest of your life."
Adam lowered his gaze, hesitant to confirm his uncle's suspicions. "I'm sorry, Oncle. I—"
"No, no, I understand," his uncle interrupted gently. "I suppose I should have expected it... given your circumstances. As you know, my father—your grandfather—was very set on tradition. When your mother turned seventeen, he put all his efforts into pairing her with the wealthiest suitor that would have her. I can't say it was without reason—after all, her marriage saved us from years of financial ruin down the line. Still, I often wonder how different her life might have been, had he given her the freedom to choose a suitor instead of marrying her off in haste."
Christophe bowed his head in mournful contemplation as Adam glanced back at him in pity. As a child, he would have found his uncle's words to be deeply upsetting. But as an adult, he had long since accepted that his parents' marriage was far from a match made in heaven. His mother had spent thirteen years hiding her pain behind feigned smiles and laughter, all to protect her son from her husband's cruel and self-indulgent lifestyle. But despite her best efforts, Adam had still grown up to become the complete opposite of the boy she'd raised him to be. And while his time as a beast and time traveller had helped him overcome the worst of his demons, he doubted he'd ever be free from the scars his parents had left behind.
"But that fate doesn't have to be yours, neveu," Christophe continued, bringing him back to the present. "Speaking as your uncle, I'd never expect you to sacrifice all your happiness for the sake of others. I'd much prefer you marry someone for love than for money or status. I'm sure your mother—were she still alive today—would say the same thing."
Adam blinked at his uncle dubiously, then snorted. "You forget, Oncle. Marrying for love requires you to fall in love with someone first. That won't happen to me. Why, I'm twenty-five years old and I'm doubtful I ever will."
"Never say never," Christophe encouraged. "I'm sure there's someone out there who's right for you. One day, you'll find her, and you'll know it without a doubt. It will hit you—bam!—like lightning."
Adam shook his head and forced himself to chuckle. It wasn't that he hadn't tried to connect with someone new yet. He sometimes made small talk with other eligible noblewomen when he attended aristocratic functions, but nothing worthwhile ever came from his efforts. As he'd learned from his former betrothal to Amandine, once he'd fallen in love with someone, it was impossible to see himself with anyone else. But Belle was destined for a better life; full of adventures and delights beyond anything he could give her as a Prince of France. For all these reasons and more, he was certain that he was better off spending the rest of his life on his own.
A week passed. Belle's work as castle librarian fell into a comfortable, if predictable routine. The moment her shift started, she'd get straight to business, taking books off the library shelves and recording their condition into Webster's entry book. While she tried to avoid reading too deeply into the books themselves, sometimes she couldn't help but get swept away into the pages of a particularly fascinating text, to the point she'd almost lose track of time.
It was a rewarding job but also a little lonely, with no one to talk to as she completed her work. The only people who visited her during the day were Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts, the latter of whom liked to spoil her with tea and baked treats she was testing out for the Master. All the servants had taken a liking to their new librarian, and while Belle could easily say she felt the same about them, none of them shared her passion for reading and literature. And so, she kept her discoveries in the library to herself, like the archangel Uriel, guarding mankind against the unspeakable secrets locked away in the tree of knowledge, good and evil.
On Wednesday afternoon, Belle was in the middle of locking up the library for the day when she heard music coming from the corridor on her right. Her brows furrowed, trying to decipher the foreign sound. She couldn't identify the instrument—only that it had a plucked and muted timbre that reminded her of several lutes playing at once. The melody was curious: slow, contemplative, and slightly hymn-like. After a moment of deliberation, she decided to investigate.
It didn't take long for her to find the source of the music coming from a half-opened door at the end of the corridor. She peered inside. At the center of a spacious sitting room was what appeared to be a triangular writing desk with a lid protruding from its top surface. Golden leaves had been carved at strategic angles along the sides of the contraption, emphasizing its unique curves and elegant design. This must be a harpsichord, Belle inferred, remembering a book she'd read about musical instruments once. How many keys do they have again? Fifty? Sixty?
Prince Adam sat by the edge of the instrument, face deep in concentration as he read from a sheet of parchment on a stand in front of him. Belle couldn't see his hands from where she stood, though the way he swayed in time to the music gave her little doubt of his proficiency behind the keys. She also noticed that he was dressed a bit more casually today, donned in a white shirt with ruffled sleeves and a jade green waistcoat. But despite his more dressed-down appearance, his straight posture and neatly tied queue still raised no question of his royal bloodline.
Sultan was curled up on the floor next to the Prince's stool. Upon noticing Belle, he got to his feet and trotted towards her, tail wagging excitedly.
"Hello, Sultan," Belle greeted in a low voice, not wanting to disturb the Prince's performance.
Unfortunately, her efforts failed her. The Prince—either hearing her voice or sensing her movement from the doorway—ended his piece mid-phrase. Startled, Belle looked up to see him gazing at her with those stunning greenish-blue eyes of his.
Quickly, he fumbled for something in front of him and pulled it out with an unceremonious "clunk" before glancing back up at her, face as red as a beet. "M-mademoiselle Gagnier!" he stuttered. "What a pleasant surprise!"
"I'm so sorry, Your Highness," she apologized, feeling her own cheeks redden in mutual embarrassment. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
"No-no. That's all right. I was just finishing up. No harm done."
An awkward silence passed between them. Belle bit her lip and gave Sultan a scratch behind the ears before saying, "I didn't know you'd come back yet." Which, she supposed had been her own fault. She'd been so preoccupied with organizing the library, she didn't even remember Cogsworth telling her what day the Master would be returning.
"Yes. Late last night," Prince Adam confirmed. "It was a long trip, but uh—here I am."
"There you are," she repeated, mentally wincing at her awkward comment. Small talk had never been one of her fortes; something she deeply wished she'd spent more time practicing now. Her eyes flickered back to the harpsichord, looking for any excuse to change the subject. "Is that really… a harpsichord?" she blurted out.
Oh, brilliant job, Belle! Now he'll think you're uncultured and a child.
Prince Adam glanced at the instrument and nodded thoughtfully. "Indeed. It's your typical French double-manual: ivory keys, spruce soundboard, pedal mechanism, peau de buffle. The works."
"Oh." She smiled, half in relief, half in fascination. "I've read about them, but I've never seen one up close before. Are they difficult to play?"
"Yes. And no." He shrugged. "It's all a lot of muscle memory, truth be told. Though I wouldn't consider myself an exemplary player. I stopped taking lessons over a decade ago, and only recently started taking them up again."
"I thought your playing was lovely," Belle complimented. "All I can do is sing, though compared to Madame de Garderobe's talent, I fear I sound more like a toad than a chorister."
The Prince chuckled. "Never undermine your abilities, mademoiselle. I'm sure you have a lovely singing voice."
He said it so matter-of-factly, but it still didn't fail to bring a flush to Belle's cheeks. Did Prince Adam act this impressionably around all his subjects, or just around her?
"Erm… Cogsworth told me you're settling in well to your new position," he continued as he fidgeted with his cravat. "Tell me, how do you like working in the library so far?"
"I love it, Your Highness," Belle said without missing a beat. "You have so many wonderful books in your collection. It's like being in heaven on earth every time I'm in there."
"I'm glad to hear it." He smiled. "You're welcome to take some of those books home with you if you wish. I daresay there's a far better selection in there than what you'd find in your village."
She gasped. "Oh no. I couldn't possibly. They're yours!"
"Please, I insist. Consider it interest for filling in the position under such short notice. Besides, they'll sit and collect dust unless someone takes them out to air. Just remember to handle them carefully and bring them back to the library once you've finished."
"Absolutely, Your Highness." Belle nodded vigorously. "Thank you so much!" She tried not to show too much enthusiasm, but inside, she was already on the ceiling, bursting with joy at the Prince's most generous offer.
"You're welcome." He smiled again. "I presume you've finished your work for the day, then? What's next on your agenda? Going home to read? Working on your laundry machine?"
Belle smirked. "Actually, I was thinking about going for a walk in the woods. It's not too hot out, and the light is simply gorgeous around this time of day. It's the perfect way to exercise the muse… or at least, get outside the house for a while."
"What a strange coincidence. I was just thinking about going for a walk myself. Perhaps we should consider going together?"
"Oh." She hesitated. "Well… um—"
"And with Sultan, and my valet, Chapeau, of course," he added, suddenly turning a bit pink again. "We always go out for walks in the forest around this time of day. We'd probably be back around four if we headed out in say… ten minutes."
Belle considered that. While the Prince's offer was sudden, she couldn't deny her curiosity to see more of the land outside his castle. And who better to go with than the owner of the land himself? It sounded like the perfect opportunity.
"I... I suppose that would be all right," she agreed.
"Excellent!" He grinned. "I'll call for my valet."
Belle's walk with Prince Adam turned out to be quite agreeable, despite their earlier mishap in the sitting room. She ambled beside him on the forest trail as Chapeau and Sultan followed closely behind them. Their initial awkwardness soon resolved into pleasant conversation as the Prince drew her attention to several aspects of the forest, including rocks and trees altered by animals and other natural occurrences. When Belle asked how he knew so much on the subject, he admitted that he was something of a forester, and enjoyed studying the trees and wildlife in his spare time. It was a curious pastime for a prince, but Belle had to admit: it suited him.
Eventually, however, he prompted her to change the subject. Belle couldn't think of anything meaningful to say, so she told him about a novel she was reading called The Book of the City of Ladies. What intrigued Belle about the text was how the author challenged certain statements about women, including their role in society and how they should be educated. Midway through her rambling, she feared the Prince would dismiss her musings or call her a blasphemer for expressing such controversial ideas. Instead, he listened attentively, giving examples from other books that aligned with the writer's perspective. It was a riveting conversation between two people of opposite social standings. In the end, Belle was glad that she'd raised the subject.
When they returned to the castle grounds, Chapeau had to stop by the stables to rinse off Sultan's paws. As they waited for him to finish, Adam took Belle into the stables to show off his horses. He tried to downplay his collection by saying that most nobles kept around ten horses while he only kept four, but Belle could tell he was feigning his modesty, nonetheless. All his horses were expensive breeds that would have no business trotting around in a backwater town like hers. Nevertheless, as a horse lover herself, they fascinated her.
"Which one is your favourite?" she asked the Prince curiously.
"I have a particular fondness for Arabian horses," he answered. "Jupiter is a very good steed." He gestured to a palomino horse in a stall behind them, which had a chiselled face with dark expressive eyes.
"Jupiter?" Belle repeated curiously. "Like the planet?"
"The Roman god," he corrected. "Ruler of the sky and lightning. I found it fitting, since horses of this calibre are said to move as fast as—"
"Lightning," she finished. "Oh, that's an excellent name, then! Hello, Jupiter." She reached out to stroke the side of the horse's neck. Since Jupiter did not object to this, Belle did the same on the other side, then reached up to rub his ears.
"Don't get too attached now," Prince Adam teased. "You'll make Sultan jealous."
"I should hope not. I don't mean to break any hearts."
Belle thought she heard the Prince make a "tsk" sound at her comment. But when she turned back to him, his expression was unreadable, eyes focused on something in the rafters. "Yes, many good horses have stayed in these stables," he mused. "Though I can't say the same for the memories."
"What do you mean?"
"It may shock you to know this, but the life of a prince isn't all sunshine and butterflies," he explained in a sardonic tone. "I... snuck out here once, the night of Réveillon. I was thirteen and it was the first Christmas without my mother. It had been a rough year for me, dealing with her loss and… everything that followed. And my father…" His expression darkened. "Well, let's just say that he wasn't the most sympathetic of individuals. He believed that the best way to deal with grief was to not express any emotions at all. And when I didn't follow his lead…" His voice faltered and a haunted look crept over his face, lost in a deeply-seated memory. Still, he took a deep breath and continued: "Eventually, it became too much for me. I wanted to disappear, forget who I was, where I came from. I didn't care where I went, I just needed to escape."
Belle frowned at the Prince in pity while trying to guess at what he wasn't telling her. The servants often liked to gossip about him in the kitchens, which had given her a rough impression of what his parents were like: a mother who adored him and died too soon, and a cold, abusive father who'd torn all the happiness from him and buried it deep down. It was nearly unfathomable to Belle; whose own father had supported all her decisions and never once laid a hand on her.
"Did you do it?" she asked him gently.
"No." He shook his head. "There was a big blizzard that night and I never got past the stables. Eventually, Mr. Potts found me and brought me back inside. When I came to my senses, I remembered something my mother once told me: 'No matter how bleak things may seem, we must always put our best foot forward and trust in the Lord to make things better.'" He fixed Belle in an intense stare, eyes soft and glossy. "I didn't take much stock in it at first, but in the end, I decided to hold on to that belief. Things did get better… to a point. It gets better every day."
Belle smiled. She felt a new sense of admiration for the Prince, knowing he'd endured so much at such a young age, but still emerged a stronger person for it. Yet the fact that he'd disclosed such a personal story to her left an uneasy feeling in her stomach and several questions she was half-afraid to ask. "Could I ask you something, Your Highness?" she posed after a moment's hesitation.
"Well… it's just, you've done so much for me," she pointed out. "You've invited me to dinner, to dance at your party, and walk with you in your forest. You've even offered me a job as your temporary librarian. I'm truly grateful for all of it, but I have to wonder… why? Why show so much charity to me, a peasant girl with barely any prospects to her name?"
Prince Adam blinked rapidly, caught off-guard by Belle's unexpected question. Clearing his throat, he answered, "I think you already know the answer to that, mademoiselle. I'm impressed by your talent for reading and inventing and want to offer you this opportunity to experience upper class culture firsthand. While also working to blur the barriers that exist between the aristocracy and working class."
"I understand that part. But what do you gain personally?" she probed. "Am I to be some trophy for you to show off to your peers, as proof of what a generous leader you are?"
"Of course not!" He shook his head.
"Then what am I to you? A foundling for you to render to your amusement? A future conquest?"
He took a step back, and from the slighted look in his eyes, Belle realized that her accusation had hurt him in a way she did not expect. Her cheeks burned in shame. All she'd wanted was some answers, but here she was, letting her impatience get the better of her… again. "I'm sorry, Your Highness," she said, lowering her voice back to a more conversational tone. "I shouldn't have—"
"No," he interrupted, running a hand through his strawberry blonde hair. "Please don't apologize. You have every right to accuse me of being dishonest with you. The truth is… I've never been good at making friends, at least the kind that lasted. When I was a boy, my father was very protective of me. After my mother died, he cut me off from anyone who would distract me from my studies or prevent me from becoming the prince he wanted me to be. Even after he died, I found it difficult to open up to anyone. I would invite hundreds of aristocrats to my castle every week, hoping to find someone to connect with, but never did." He crossed his arms, expression sad and distant. "But with you... it's different. I feel like I can trust you. Like I don't have to pretend when I'm around you, the way I do when I'm with other people. I know it's an odd request, but I'd like us to be… friends, if you'd have me."
Belle opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to wrap her head around the Prince's startling proposal. Here she was, throwing unfounded accusations at him when all he wanted was to be her friend. The question was: did she feel the same?
She couldn't deny that the Prince fascinated her. From the first day they'd met, she'd felt a unique connection to him; one that a friendship would allow them to continue pursuing. Each time they'd met, he'd shown her nothing but kindness and sincerity. He'd taken a genuine interest in her pursuits and rewarded her curiosity instead of dismissing or shaming it. Why shouldn't they put a name to this good thing that existed between them? Considering the time they'd already spent together, it seemed like the logical next step.
"Well, I suppose I'm partially to blame for the misunderstanding, too," she admitted. "I've never been great at making friends either. You already know my sob story about the girl who was scorned by the children in her village because she liked to read. I'm so used to being on my own... I'm afraid I wouldn't recognize a friend if they were dancing naked right in front of me."
The Prince laughed at that. "Well, as your first official 'friend,' I promise I won't scorn your reading choices or do anything to compromise your honour," he vowed. "I just want the privilege of your company. Nothing more."
He stared at her with that same fond expression he'd fixed her in when they'd been waiting for her carriage. The sight sent a jolt of butterflies through her stomach—a completely normal reaction to a man as attractive as himself. How many years had he lost to the darkness, forced to follow the path his father had laid out for him? And how many years had she spent, moving from one town to the next, going through the motions of her provincial life while dreaming of a better future? Whether by fate, destiny, or providence, she couldn't deny: some higher power must have brought them together at this moment in time.
"I have one condition," she said.
"If we're going to do this friendship thing properly, could we possibly do away with the formalities? Mademoiselle Gagnier sounds so rigid. I'd much prefer to be called Belle. Just Belle."
"Of course, Belle." The Prince nodded. "Though if I am to address you by your first name, you must afford me the same courtesy. No more 'Your Highness' or 'Master.' Call me Adam. Just Adam."
"Adam," she repeated slowly. It sounded like a forbidden word coming from her mouth, and nothing she'd get used to saying anytime soon. Still, a deal was a deal. "It's nice to meet you."
He smiled. "It's nice to meet you, too."
They shook hands. Belle seized the moment to look into the Prince—Adam's eyes again, overcome by a strange sense of familiarity for this new and alarming change that had passed between them.
From the window of his study, Adam watched as Belle's wagon departed the castle for the day. An hour had passed since they'd agreed to become friends, and his mind was still buzzing with the unexpected decision he'd made.
Of all the excuses to give her, it had to be that one. What on earth were you thinking, Adam?
He was at full fault for what had happened in the stables, of course. He shouldn't have engaged Belle in conversation when she'd found him practicing his harpsichord in the salon. He shouldn't have asked her if she'd wanted to go for a walk with him in the forest. And he shouldn't have told her that sad story about his childhood—at least not without expecting her to question him about it afterwards.
But his visit to the Château de Tourmone last week had given him a new perspective. He'd finally acknowledged that the life he'd built for the past five years was drawing to a close. Vincent was getting married and moving to Claircomble to be with Amandine in a few months' time. He and his cousin would spend less time together… that was if they had any time to spend together at all. On top of that, everyone in Adam's inner circle was waiting for him to get engaged, despite his insistence that he was happy to remain a bachelor. He was at a crossroads with no map, no guide, and no sense of which direction he was meant to take.
But then he'd run into Belle, and it was like he'd suddenly found his bearings again. She'd reminded him of the past—of a time when he was happy, the last time he could let down his guard and speak his mind with no fear of judgment. Was it selfish of him then, to crave the company of the girl who'd taught him to laugh for the first time in over a decade? His heart was begging him to hold her tight and never let go. His mind knew better than to indulge in what he could never have.
She'll only be here for a little while, he reminded himself. Once Webster's well enough to return to work, she'll go back to Villeneuve to continue her life like nothing's changed. There's no sense in getting attached to her now. No good will come to either of us if I try.
Maybe telling Belle he wanted to be friends wasn't the best excuse, but honestly, what else could he have said to convince her? She wouldn't have believed him if he'd told her the truth about their past. And when he really thought hard about it, maybe a relationship wasn't such a bad thing for them to pursue, so long as it stayed platonic and only platonic. Adam swore not to let his feelings for Belle affect her future, as much as his heart yearned for the opposite. He'd attempted to cross that line with her more than once and knew all too well how disastrous it could be if he tried to cross it again.
The weeks passed. True to his word, Adam played the role of a loyal friend to Belle, meeting her after her shifts to give her extensive tours of the castle and the grounds. Sometimes they went horseback riding in the woods; Adam offered Belle his grey thoroughbred to ride, seeing as the mare needed the exercise and Belle had no horse of her own. He even honoured her with a private music recital once, playing the easiest movement from a sonata by Balbastre, while Chapeau played the melody on his violin. Belle had nothing but compliments for them, but her face lit up even more when Adam invited her to sit at the harpsichord after to show her how the keys and pedal mechanisms worked. As an inventor, Belle was completely fascinated by the instrument's anatomy, making Adam glad to have thought of the idea.
On one particularly rainy day, the two of them spent the afternoon in the library, discussing their favourite and least favourite books. Eventually, they came across a Gaulic history textbook Adam had been forced to read as a child and hated, due to its thick size and boring prose. Belle thought the best way to remedy Adam's sorry relationship with his textbook was to take turns reading it aloud in the silliest voices they could muster. Adam thought this was a strange idea, but agreed to indulge her, nonetheless. Their game went a bit too far, however, and soon they were collapsed on the sofa in stitches, laughing so hard that Cogsworth had to poke his head through the doors to ensure that nothing was amiss.
That should have been enough for Adam; these quiet afternoons of reading books together with Belle, enjoying the balmy summer breeze, her glancing over at him without a trace of fear or revulsion. But his dreams said otherwise. Every night, he'd be plagued by visions of the two of them having picnics in an open pasture, sitting in a rowboat on a shimmering lake, or walking hand-in-hand down a beach at sunset. Almost all these dreams ended with them kissing—in one of them, he'd gone as far as to lower her onto the grass and undo the lacings of her bodice as she reached up with trembling hands to remove his shirt.
Moments later, he woke up with his face drenched in sweat and his heart racing like a maniac. As the events of the dream caught up to his reality, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He hadn't dreamt about Belle like that in years.
"It's just a dream. Just a stupid dream," he muttered to himself as he pressed his face into his pillow. Just another meaningless vision of a reality that would never be his. All he could do was wait for it to pass, like all the other regrets he carried in this life.
Monday was a busy day for Prince Adam. Following his appointment with the Prince d'Isoard de Chenerilles, he had to meet with his tailors to be fitted for some new suits for his upcoming visit with the Duke of Pontavice. The process took longer than he'd expected, and before he knew it, the hour in which he would normally meet with Belle had come and gone in a flash. Not wanting her to wait any longer, he hastily changed back into his regular clothes and burst through the West Wing doors, nearly slamming into Plumette as he reached the stairs.
"Oh Maître!" the young woman cried out with an alarmed squeal. "Je suis tellement désolée! I'll be more careful next time!"
"Never mind that," Adam said dismissively. "Have you seen Belle anywhere?"
"Well, as a matter of fact"—Plumette rubbed her chin pensively—"I believe I saw her wandering through the atrium less than ten minutes ago. It looked like she was heading towards the ballroom."
Adam sighed in relief; grateful he hadn't missed her. "Thank you!" he said, before making his way down the stairs.
As predicted, Belle was in the ballroom. Adam walked in to see her dancing away with an invisible partner at the center of the floor. She looked like an angel in her new beige robe à l'anglaise, a sight that left him breathless and brought an uncontrollable smile to his face. He wondered if this was how Hades had felt when he'd seen Persephone picking flowers in that meadow and instantly fallen in love.
Belle had so much spirit, so much joy, so much imagination. She was so unafraid of what people thought of her. How could the townsfolk call her a funny girl, when to Adam, she was his whole world? He would gladly give her everything he owned, right down to the shirt on his back, if it would make her happy.
"There you are!" he called out in his excitement. Then remembering his manners, he crossed the ballroom to speak with her properly.
"Adam!" Belle stopped dancing and turned around with a start. "I'm so sorry! The room was open, so I thought—"
"No need to apologize," he cut in, smiling at her gently to assure her that she wasn't in trouble. "You seemed to be enjoying yourself. Would I be permitted to join you?"
"Well, of course," she obliged. "After all, who am I to refuse a dance from a prince?"
"From a friend," he corrected. "Don't forget our agreement."
"Right. Sorry." She cleared her throat. "I would love to dance with you... as a friend."
Adam bowed to Belle and she curtsied in turn. Then, he took her hand and guided her across the floor.
As he suspected, Belle danced much better when nobody was watching them. The two of them glided around the empty room in an improvised waltz that nearly mirrored the one they'd exchanged in another reality—except that Adam was now the right size to dance with his partner. Just thinking of that fateful evening was enough to make his throat tighten with emotion. He remembered how much love he'd felt for her then… a love that still hadn't faltered after all these years. This was how their first dance should have been, had his circumstances been different. This was how he wanted her to remember him.
When the two of them grew tired of dancing, they went to sit on the orchestra dais to talk about their day.
"I haven't danced like that in a long time," Adam admitted with a smile.
"My father taught me to dance," said Belle. "I used to step on his toes a lot."
The Prince smirked, thinking of the last time Belle had shared this story with him. He'd been so hopeful then, so desperate for any sign that she returned his affections, that he'd failed to remember that all she cared about was her freedom. Even now that he was no longer a beast, and she was no longer his prisoner, he was certain her priorities would never change.
"What about your mother?" he inquired, wanting to distract himself from that particularly sobering line of thought. "You've never mentioned her before."
"You're right, I haven't." She lowered her shoulders and frowned. "The truth is... I never knew my mother. She died in Paris when I was a baby, and my father has never explained the reasons. All I have to remember her by are the portraits he draws of her and the stories he tells me. Still, it's not the same as knowing her." She sighed and turned her gaze towards the floor. "I don't even know where she's buried, or if she even had a burial."
Adam's heart twisted painfully in his chest. He still hadn't forgotten about the night they'd visited Belle's old home in Paris; the attic filled with dust and darkness—a sad remnant of a family life that once was. The devastation on Belle's face when she'd seen the doctor's plague mask had pained him in a way he didn't think possible. It had been a turning point in their relationship and given Belle some long-needed closure on her mother's death. But even though it had brought them closer together, Adam still couldn't figure out a way to tell this Belle the real reasons for her mother's passing.
"I'm sorry," he forced himself to say instead. If he couldn't be honest with her, he could at least be sympathetic. "Perhaps I could do some investigative work to find out."
Belle glanced over at him in disbelief. "You would do that?"
"Of course." He nodded. "What was her name?"
"Rose-Colette Gagnier, though most people called her Colette. And before she married my father, her maiden name was Meunier."
"What a lovely name. I'll see if it turns up in any of the national records the next time I'm in Paris. It may take a bit of time, though. I'm planning to leave for Comblenoir next week."
"You're leaving again?" Belle said in surprise. Adam thought he heard a trace of disappointment in her voice too but was certain he'd imagined it.
"Yes, well, it's just for a week or two," he elaborated. "The Duke of Pontavice has invited me to his castle to discuss a new business venture. And… to introduce me to his niece as… a potential bride."
"Oh." Belle pursed her lips together thoughtfully, then added, "Do you want to marry her?"
He shrugged. "I've never been big on arranged marriages, as surprising as that may sound. I saw what it did to my parents and honestly can't see myself doing the same, knowing how it might affect my future descendants. Still... a marriage is important for sustaining my kingdom, and I will need to name an heir at some point. I haven't made any official decisions yet, but it doesn't hurt to explore my options and... see who's available." He bit his lip, hating how business-like his explanation sounded. But that was all a marriage was to an aristocrat like him: another expectation to follow, another necessary step to sustaining one's title. When it came to extending his lineage, love was of little importance. True, Vincent and Amandine were marrying for love, but they were the rare exception to that rule. Adam doubted he'd be as lucky as them in finding someone he had feelings for and was of noble blood. He had turned himself off to that possibility long ago.
"What about that servant girl who used to work for you?" Belle went on. "Would you marry her, if she ever returned to you?"
Adam blinked in confusion. "Servant girl?"
"Yes." Her cheeks darkened, as though she were embarrassed to have asked such a personal question. Still, she continued, "The one you told me about when we were waiting for my carriage the first day we met? The way you spoke of her, I wondered if—"
"Oh." Adam frowned. He hadn't expected Belle to remember that story. He'd shared it with her on a moment's spur, thinking they wouldn't see each other again, so it didn't matter if he spoke openly with her on certain subjects. Had he known that his honesty would come back to bite him one day, he would have been much more prudent about holding his tongue.
"The truth is, I did have feelings for her," he confessed. Admitting it aloud to her, even if she had no idea that the girl in question was in fact her, was something of a relief. "But I knew it wasn't my place to act on them. She was like a sparrow who had her eyes pointed towards the sky, and I couldn't find it in me to clip her wings. I know she'd be happier spending her life out on the road than spending a lifetime with me as my wife."
"I... understand." Belle nodded solemnly. "To be honest, I'm not sure if I'm fit to marry either. It's not exactly becoming for a woman to have a profound mind like mine if she wants to attract a husband—at least that's what the people in my village say. There's Gaston of course, but I'd rather catch the plague than marry him. Still, I know my father won't live forever." She lowered her gaze again, expression sad and pensive. "If he dies while I remain a spinster, I'd have to give up our cottage and find somewhere else to stay. Père Robert or Professeur Doucet could take me in for a while, but I don't want to be a burden on either of them. So… when my father dies, I plan to join a convent and become a nun."
"You... become a nun?" The Prince snorted. "You can't be serious."
"I am, actually," she asserted, and Adam was taken aback by the sharp defensiveness in her voice. "I've put a lot of thought into it, and I know this is the best option. I could read and write as much as I want, with no one criticizing me for it. I could even go to the local orphanages to read books to the children there. If I'm really fortunate, I might even be able to travel to New France or the Southern Colonies for missionary work. I wouldn't exactly be the next Don Quixote, but I could still travel and see the world while making a difference in people's lives. It would be an adventure in its own right."
Adam considered that. As startling as it sounded, he had to admit that Belle raised some good points. The world wasn't exactly kind to unmarried women if his misadventures through time weren't a testament to that fact. Moreover, Belle had no relatives who could take her in after her father's passing, putting her in even more precarious a position. The convent was one of the few safe places she could go to next to the poorhouse, and the differences in those two living conditions were immense.
Still, Adam couldn't picture Belle stepping into a nunnery one day and stepping out as a Sœur Marie-Something the next. He had visited a convent with his mother once and had been haunted by the strange solemnness of the sisters' lives; how they gave up their identities and earthly possession in the name of serving the Lord. While Adam was certain that Belle's education and selfless nature would be welcome in such a place, he wasn't sure if she'd be happy to be shut away from the rest of the world, with no chance of leaving once she'd taken her vows. In a way, it would be like trading one prescriptive life for another.
"It's a big commitment to pledge your whole life to God, even more than ruling a kingdom, I daresay," he told her. "Still I don't think that life will be yours, Belle. One day, you'll find a man who will love you for all your qualities, both good and 'profound,' and you'll fall hard and fast for him, just like in those fairy tales you like to read. I'm certain of it."
Belle let out a shaky laugh and looked back at him curiously. "You really believe that?"
"I do." He nodded. "But if I'm wrong... I'll take ownership of your house and you can live there for as long as you like. Or you can come and live here if you want. I'm sure I can find another position for you."
Belle's eyes softened and filled with an inner glow; a sight so breathtaking that Adam almost melted on the spot. He had to muster every bit of self-control to listen to her as she said, "Thank you, Adam. That's a very kind offer. But you need to give yourself some credit, too. I'm sure there's someone out there who's right for you. You're generous and smart, and... a good friend. Any woman would be lucky to have you."
Her voice was barely as a whisper, but still more than Adam could bear. Suddenly, he was back in the woods with her by the campfire, overcome with the urge to pull her into his arms and run his hands through her hair, kissing her with gentle ease and urgency. Against his better wishes, he leaned forward until he could see all the dimples on her cheeks and count all the freckles on her face. Belle's eyes flickered with uncertainty at Adam's sudden change in demeanour, yet she remained perfectly still. Her cheeks reddened and her lips parted like she was trying to say something but couldn't find the words.
Her constrained reaction was what brought Adam back to reality. If he kissed her now, he'd be breaking his promise, and the illusion he'd maintained for the past five years would shatter like glass from a mirror. They had to stay friends and only friends.
Clearing his throat, he looked away from her and forced himself to sit in a more upright position. "Yes, well. I should probably go back to work."
"Oh," she responded in faint surprise. "Well, yes. Of course."
Glancing across the ballroom, Adam saw a familiar powdered wig disappear behind the ballroom doors. His eyes narrowed in suspicion. Of course he should have expected Lumière to spy on them at a time like this.
It was nine o'clock in the evening. Adam stood by the fireplace in the West Wing, absently twirling a rose from his mother's garden between his fingers. He didn't look up as his maître d' entered the room, answering a call of summons he'd received shortly after dinner.
"You sent for me, Maître?"
"Yes, Lumière. I need you to deliver a message to the rest of the staff for me. I've decided to leave for Comblenoir a day early."
"Leave next Tuesday instead of Wednesday?" Lumière sounded surprised. "Mais… pourquoi?"
"I've received a letter from the Prince de Mailly-Nesle regarding some new trading opportunities in Germany," he explained. "I wish to discuss them with him before I meet with the Duke next week."
"I see." The maître d' scratched his chin thoughtfully. "And… will you be taking Mademoiselle Gagnier with you?"
"What?" He turned away from the fireplace, an incredulous look on his face. "Of course not! Why would you ask such a thing?"
"Well, I just assumed… given that she is your invitée d'honneur, you might want to introduce her to some of the other aristocrats you do business with," Lumière politely suggested. "And it will allow you to get a little… closer, n'est-ce pas?"
Adam's mouth dropped open in shock. He tried his best to sound surprised as he said, "You're suggesting I have feelings for the girl?"
"Come now, Master. I've served your family since you were a baby," Lumière pointed out with an impish smirk. "You should know by now that you can't hide secrets from me. All those favours you're giving her, that 'recreational' time you spend with her after her work shifts? I may be getting on in years, but I can still tell when a man is falling in love."
"We're just friends," Adam dismissed.
"Certainement. But does she think the same way?" He eyed the rose in Adam's hand, causing the young man to take a reflexive step backwards. He knew he should have expected Lumière to question his relationship with Belle, especially after almost seeing them kiss in the ballroom today. But as the master of his household, he had to keep his feelings a secret. If he even hinted at the possibility of them becoming more, it would cause rumours to spread about the castle like wildfire. Rumours that would undoubtedly get back to Belle and ruin everything.
"Of course," he answered curtly, hoping to discourage his maître d' from saying any more on the subject.
Unfortunately, it didn't work. Lumière shook his head and smiled, seeing straight through his master's bluff. "You need to tell her how you feel, Master," he persisted. "Above gifts or compliments, women want the men they admire to be brave enough to speak from their heart. If you say nothing, she'll slip away from you like a fish caught in a broken net. If you care about her even a little, now is the best time to say so."
"I do not love her, and I have nothing to confess," Adam refuted. "I respect and admire her, that's all. She's a bright and intelligent young woman who will make a big name for herself one day. She's a credit to her station and her sex. It is a privilege to know her."
"Without question," Lumière agreed wholeheartedly, though the earnestness in his expression was what made the Prince's fists clench. "But if you were to be honest with yourself—"
"Enough!" Adam shouted, so loudly, that Sultan—who was lying on his bed in the corner of the West Wing—stood up in alarm. "I do not want to talk anymore about Mademoiselle Gagnier, do you hear? Now go and make those preparations for Tuesday. I want no surprises or delays before my departure."
"Yes, Master." Lumière shrunk under his master's gaze and bowed. "Forgive me. I was only making a suggestion."
As he made his way out of the West Wing, Adam felt a twinge of guilt. He hadn't meant to yell at his maître d' like that, but at the same time, the man had to know his place. He had no right to tell Adam how to conduct his relationship with Belle. They could not and would never become a romantic item. End of story.
Just before he reached the doors, Lumière stopped and turned around again, a conflicted look on his face. "Master, before I leave... may I say one more thing?"
Adam rolled his eyes. "Make it quick," he grumbled, certain that whatever he was about to say, it would only irritate him further.
"I just want you to know that according to Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth, Belle has always been something of an introvert in her village. She keeps to herself, walks around town with her nose in a book, and has no close friends to speak of. She's not exactly the most approachable person to be around. But with you, she seems very relaxed… happier even. It would take someone quite special to bring a girl like that out of her shell."
Adam bit his lip, the heavy feeling in his stomach increasing as Lumière added, "You've grown a lot in the past five years, Master. Many of your subjects have benefited from your kindness and dedication to improving their wellbeing. I'm proud to serve you and call you my prince. But you need to think about your happiness, too. You should never be afraid to open your heart to someone new. You should never be afraid to fall in love."
With these words, he bowed and took his leave.
Left to his thoughts again, Adam glanced back at the fireplace before tossing the rose resolutely into the flames. He missed his target however, and instead of landing in the grate, the rose rebounded off one of the pillars and fell to the floor.
Sighing in defeat, and half-convinced that the universe was trying to make a mockery of him, Adam crossed the room to sit on his bed and bury his face in his hands.
He knew that Lumière only wanted the best for him. But by encouraging him to pursue a relationship with Belle, he was only making things worse. The façade Adam had built around himself for the last five years was already starting to crumble. He was falling more in love with Belle by the day. And after what had almost happened in the ballroom this afternoon, it was becoming harder for him to uphold his promise to only be her friend.
He wanted Belle to stay with him, to live with him forevermore. It was a selfish wish. Even now as he closed his eyes, he could see the same old images of Belle sitting helplessly in a corner of her bedchamber—a beautiful room but a prison cell all the same. He saw her walking away from him during his engagement ball with her face scrunched up in disgust. He saw her sitting on that filthy bed back at La Bouteille Bon Marché, physically and mentally broken from the months she'd spent working as a prostitute. He had caused all of that. He had given her that pain. And he would do it all over again if he allowed himself to act on his feelings.
Lowering his hands, Adam saw Sultan staring at him questionably from across the room. His eyes were filled with a strange sagacity, like he too sensed that something wasn't quite right with his master.
"I'm just a side stop for her, Sultan," Adam muttered, glad that out of all the companions he kept, his dog was the only one who couldn't repeat his secrets. "We can never be together. Once she and her father leave Villeneuve, she'll fall in love with some swashbuckling, well-read gentleman who will make her happy in every sense of the word. She'll love him so much that she'll forget I ever existed. I'll never be the one for her... because I wished for Agathe to make it so."
Sultan slowly blinked at the Prince, then walked over to the fireplace to pick up his discarded rose. He dropped it at his master's feet, causing Adam to smile despite himself. As he reached down to pet Sultan on the head, he began to wish for a simpler life where Belle had never come to the castle, and he'd had the strength to stay away from her, instead of letting things get as far as they had.
"Good morning, Professeur Doucet," Belle greeted, entering the village bookshop with a jovial smile. "I've come to return the book I borrowed."
"Well, it's about time," Professeur Doucet admonished, glaring at the young woman through his circular, wire-rimmed spectacles. "You haven't visited me in so long—I was starting to worry that you'd forgotten about me! Tell me, my child, where on Earth have you been?"
"I'm sorry, Professeur," Belle apologized. "I'd never forget about you! I've just been busy with my new job. I haven't had as much time to stay on top of my reading as I used to."
"Oh, my dear. I was only joking." The old man's frown turned into a smirk. "Mrs. Potts told me all about you when she came by to find a new book for her son last week. Naturally, I had to inquire about you as she was paying up."
"Oh?" Belle cocked a brow. "And what did she say about me, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Only that you're adjusting marvellously to your new position. And you're getting very well-acquainted with the young man who hired you."
A small blush spread across Belle's cheeks. "We're just friends, that's all," she persisted, out of instinct more than anything. "It's not very often that I get to meet someone who enjoys reading and criticizing books as much as I do. And I mean… it's hardly right to refuse the company of someone who's interested in the same things as you, is it not?"
"Not at all, my dear." Professeur Doucet nodded reassuringly. "Never feel that you have to justify your relationship choices to me—unless they involve that Gaston fellow, of course. What I mean to say is that I'm proud of you for seizing this opportunity to pursue your passions and make a name for yourself. You can't go wrong with a prince for a reference, that's for sure. Why, I guarantee you could find work anywhere you wanted with a man like him on your side."
"That's a good point," Belle agreed. Yet, the mention of Prince Adam caused an odd heaviness to well up in her chest. Just last Thursday, Cogsworth had brought her to his office to tell her that Mr. Webster had made a full recovery from his injury and planned to be back to work by next Wednesday. In less than a week, Belle's librarian job would be over. She'd go back to biding her time in Villeneuve and supporting her father as he finished the final repairs on his windmill box. It was time to think of the future and the opportunities that awaited them once he sold his work. Instead, all Belle could think about was what she'd be leaving behind: A library full of books and a dear friend to share it with.
But now's not the time to feel sorry about that, she chided to herself. It's been so long since you've visited the bookshop. Pull yourself together and enjoy yourself a little, would you?
She placed her borrowed copy of La Princesse de Clèves on Professeur Doucet's desk and glanced at the shelves, which, for the past two years, had been her only escape from the drudgery of her poor, provincial life. To her surprise, a new row of books had been placed on a shelf next to the history section.
She read the brass plaque underneath and her eyes widened. "A women's literature section? I've never seen this here before."
"Oui. I added it just a couple of weeks ago," explained the Professor. "It seems that a certain young woman from our village made a complaint to the Prince about reading being only a 'gentlemen's' pastime. So, in response to that, he has now permitted books for men and women to be sold in bookshops."
Belle's mouth spread in astonishment. Had Adam done that… for her? She looked back at the shelf and pulled out the first title that piqued her interest: Sermons to Young Women by Reverend James Fordyce. Opening the book to a random page, she read:
We consider the general run of Novels as utterly unfit for you. Instruction they convey none. They paint scenes of pleasure and passion altogether improper for you to behold, even with the mind's eye. Their descriptions are often loose and luscious in a high degree; their representations of love between the sexes are almost universally overstrained. All is dotage, or despair; or else ranting swelled into burlesque. In short, the majority of their lovers are either mere lunatics, or mock-heroes. A sweet sensibility, a charming tenderness, a delightful anguish, exalted generosity, heroic worth, and refinement of thought; how seldom are these best ingredients of virtuous love mixed with any judgment or care in the composition of their principal characters!
Belle's breathing grew heavier and heavier as she read through the rest of the page. Then, she flipped to the beginning of the chapter to read the author's argument in its entirety. "I don't believe this!" she fumed.
"What's the matter, my dear?"
"Why, this writer is completely condemning romantic novels, as though they are an offense to a woman's virtue. He suggests that they contain nothing more than profane, superficial scenarios and characters, and that women would be better off reading instructional books if they are to be of any use to society. How can any woman with half a brain read those words and take them seriously?"
"Rome wasn't built in a day, my dear," Professeur Doucet said with an empathetic smile. "Still, you can't deny. By selling these kinds of books to the public, it legitimizes the idea that there is a market for women readers. And where there's a market for women readers, there's a place to critique traditional norms of femininity and create new ones. Who knows? Perhaps you'll be the next intellectuelle to tear apart Reverend Fordyce's sermons and talk about what women of 'good virtue' should be reading."
Belle huffed indignantly. This wasn't exactly what she'd had in mind when she'd advocated for equal education rights for girls. But she supposed Professeur Doucet had a point. Progress was still progress, no matter how slowly it came. At least this way, she could rub it in the headmaster's face that reading wasn't only for schoolboys. The merits of literature could be just as relevant to women as they could be to men.
When Belle left the bookshop twenty minutes later, it was to run into someone she'd hoped to never see again. Gaston was leaning against the window of the leathersmith's shop, a cocky grin on his face.
"Hello, Belle," he said in his annoyingly buoyant manner.
"Gaston," Belle curtly acknowledged, while keeping her eyes fixed on the road. A part of her wished that a chasm would appear in the ground and swallow him whole already. Instead, he decided to follow her. Wonderful.
"I have to say, it's nice to see you out and about," he continued nonchalantly. "It's been quite lonely these past few weeks, not seeing your pretty face out on the streets."
"Oh, how careless of me," Belle deadpanned. "I didn't realize you expected me to act like one of your hunting trophies. So sorry I'm not free for you to admire whenever you please. Does this mean you're getting tired of looking at your reflection all day?"
"I was paying you a compliment, Belle," Gaston said seriously. "A simple 'thank you' would be nice. And a bit more smiling would do you some good as well."
Belle's grip on her wicker basket tightened. She spun around to fix the ex-soldier in a murderous glare. "I will smile whenever I want to, Gaston. Just because you're the hero of this town doesn't give you the right to tell me how to behave. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some errands to run. Goodbye."
She turned around and hustled away from him. To her surprise, Gaston didn't follow. Instead, he called out to her and said, "Do you smile at him?"
His bitter tone of voice caused Belle to stop dead in her tracks. She turned around again. "What are you talking about?"
"What, do you think I'm a fool?" Gaston's dark brows slanted in disapproval. "I've heard what the other villagers are saying. How you've spent the past month working at the castle as the Prince's librarian. That he's taken a special interest in you. And the two of you often spend the afternoons together… alone and unchaperoned."
A sudden coldness hit Belle at the core of her chest. Still, she clenched her jaw and firmly responded, "That's none of your business."
"Oh, but it is." He stepped closer to her, and Belle was too arrested by her curiosity to continue walking away as she should have. "Don't you understand? You're playing right into the Prince's hands. He's grooming you into being his next harlot. And for a beautiful, innocent young girl like you to fall for a scheme like that? Why… the thought is simply unbearable."
"You don't even know him," she argued. But internally, she could already feel her stomach churning unpleasantly. She knew Gaston was only toying with her, but his accusations had still offended her in a way she did not expect.
"I know he's a man," he pointed out. "And men of his station are only after two things: power and satisfying their baser needs."
"He's more of a man than you!" Belle thundered.
Gaston took a step back, mouth agape. As usual, it was as though he was unable to even comprehend what she had just said. This only fueled her rage.
"Have you ever thought about what I want, Gaston?" she continued furiously. "I want to escape. To see the world and find someone who will accept me for who I am. Not wait around for some man to propose to me and tell me how I should be living my life. The Prince understands that. And more than that, he's made a genuine effort to relate to me, while expecting nothing in return. He would never force me to do anything I don't want to do. He's my friend."
"You only think he is," Gaston rebuffed. "That's because you don't know what he used to be like. Before you and your father moved to Villeneuve, he would host the most gaudy balls at his castle and invite the most beautiful noblewomen to attend them. And it wasn't because he was interested in diplomacy or flexing his wealth—no sir! All he cared about was finding the perfect young maiden to take to bed with him. He had a train of poor girls under his spell, and now he's doing the same to you. If you took a good look at the situation, you'd see that—"
"Shut it!" Belle shouted. Her vision flooded with tears. She couldn't stand listening to this boor any longer. She stormed back to her house, glad that for once, he didn't pursue her.
Once she was back at home, Belle locked the front door and dried her tear-stained cheeks with her handkerchief. She knew that Gaston was only trying to stir up trouble for her; undoubtedly in some new ploy to convince her to marry him. But she wasn't buying a minute of his deception. Adam had changed. She knew he had. He had said so. His servants had said so. His cousin had said so.
And—as Belle reminded herself—Gaston was no saint. Far from it, in fact. She had heard about the stories he shared in the tavern; the "hundreds of widows" he had gotten to know intimately during his time in the war. If he thought he was presenting himself as the more virtuous suitor for her benefit, he was woefully mistaken. Adam at least seemed to take no pride in talking about his past life as a philanderer. The most Belle had gotten out of him was that "he was pretending to be someone he wasn't." It wasn't much of an explanation, but it was one she could empathize with. She had stopped badgering him for more details after that.
There was only one person who could understand what Belle was feeling right now. And her relationship with him was currently… complicated, to say the least.
After making sure that Maurice wasn't in the house, Belle went upstairs to her room. She opened the trousseau chest at the end of her bed and pulled out the diary her father had given to her for her birthday last February. Flipping through the book, she reread the entry she had written yesterday—a barrage of unrestrained thoughts and emotions after days of trying to put that strange afternoon with Adam into words:
I don't know what I find more alarming: the fact that he almost kissed me, or that for a few fleeting seconds, I wanted him to. I know I was attracted to him when first we met, but now that attraction has grown into something I thought only existed in fairy tales. He's like no man I've known before: intelligent, compassionate, always willing to listen to my thoughts. But there's a veil of sadness about him, a sadness that makes me want to reach out and pull him away from whatever darkness still plagues his mind. Considering all the time we've spent together; it's becoming harder for me to dismiss my feelings for him as a silly infatuation. After what happened in the ballroom on Monday, I'm starting to wonder if he feels the same.
When he pulled away from me that day, it was as if I'd snapped out of a dream. I felt startled, then horrified. Who knew what could have happened if I'd let him kiss me? Our friendship would never be the same after. He might have wanted more from me or convinced me to become his lover. I find it hard to believe that a good man like Adam would ever ask such a thing from me, but this is all still so new and strange—I have to remind myself to be cautious. I can't let my odd attraction to him cloud my reason, Christian values or good sense.
Yet my feelings for him persist. Adam creeps into my thoughts at the strangest of times. I see him when I'm tending to the cabbages at the front of the house, feeding the chickens or staring at the ceiling before I drift off to sleep. When I'm at work, I think less about the books in his library and more about the things we're going to do when my shift is over. The summer days seem warm and endless, especially when I'm with him. That much I can say is true.
Under normal circumstances, I suppose this is the point where we'd talk about our feelings and decide if they're worth pursuing. But aye, there's the rub: our relationship isn't normal. In fairy tales perhaps, but not in the real world. Here, we're bound by social class, birthrights and dozens of other factors all saying we shouldn't be together. Adam has been acting oddly distant lately too, which doesn't bolster my confidence in having that conversation with him. Not that I blame him for being a negligent friend. He has a lot on his plate right now: meeting with that Duke next week, finding a wife, burying his feelings for that servant girl. A part of me wants to comfort him, but I fear I'd only make things worse. Another part of me wonders if I should try to engage him at all. After all, my job will be over in less than a week. Soon I'll be back to my normal life, and Adam and I will have no reason to cross paths again.
Only, if I'm completely honest with myself, I don't want things to go back to normal. I don't want to live the rest of my life through my books, waiting for some grand call to adventure that may never come. I've experienced more adventures with Adam than I have in all my twenty-two years of life. That's not something I can forget in a long time.
Belle looked up from the page and grabbed a pencil from her bedside table, wanting to add some more details to her last paragraph. Unfortunately, nothing new was coming to mind. Her eyes wandered from her diary to the desk across from her bed, where her worn out copy of The Tempest sat. It was a play she'd read several times already but could never seem to get enough of. She'd always envied the play's romantic leads; the way Miranda and Ferdinand knew from the moment they met each other that they were meant to be together. It was such a refreshing contrast from reality, where nothing was ever straightforward, and the man of your dreams wasn't always the man you were destined to be with.
The more Belle contemplated this fact, the more she felt that compulsive urge to escape from reality again. Heaving a sigh, she put away her diary and picked up Shakespeare's book. Soon, she was re-immersed in that blissful utopia, where love always triumphed over evil, and everything always ended exactly the way it was supposed to end.
Monday morning began as any other workday. Belle re-organized a few bookshelves, entered some more titles into Webster's ledger book, and used a feather duster to clean up the covers on the library's upper shelves. As she was doing this, she glanced through a nearby window and watched Adam play fetch with Sultan in the grounds. The boyish grin on his face was so sweet and endearing, it made Belle feel hot and flustered all at once. She suddenly imagined him in a very different scenario where instead of a dog, he was playing with a child—a son with blue eyes and reddish blonde hair.
She turned away from the window and sighed. Yes, Adam would marry, and soon. The thought disheartened her in more ways than she wanted to admit.
Belle continued to ply through the rest of the morning, and stopped only when she heard someone knock on the doors behind her. She turned around with a start. It was the Prince.
"Hello," he called out to her, a nervous expression on his face.
"Hello," she replied, observing him curiously. Normally, Adam came to see her after her shifts, not during.
"I'm so sorry to interrupt."
"That's all right. What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to tell you that I won't be able to go riding with you this afternoon," he said regretfully. "I'll be heading out to Comblenoir first thing tomorrow and want to take some time to help my servants prepare for the trip. I hope you understand."
"Of course." Given how many responsibilities Adam had to attend to in a single day, Belle knew that the time he'd spent with her this past month had been more than generous. She was only glad that he was taking this moment to say goodbye to her before they officially parted ways tomorrow.
"I'm sorry if I've been a bit distant with you lately," he added contritely. "I just… I've had a lot of things on my mind."
"No, you don't." He rubbed the back of his neck, then stared at her intently. "Belle, there are so many things I want to tell you. So many things I want to explain. I just don't know where to start."
Belle's lips parted slightly. Was Adam trying to admit that he had feelings for her? Her heart beat a little faster at the prospect, but, even so, she refused to jump to conclusions. Even if she was correct, she couldn't encourage him to think of her as more than a friend. He had a kingdom to run, and a reputation to maintain, while she was only a peasant girl with nothing to offer him financially or politically. A romance, while enticing to think about, could never be.
"Then perhaps it is best to save it for another time," she suggested gently. "You have your meeting with the Duke to think about after all. And... his niece."
The Prince blushed and nodded reluctantly. "I have enjoyed our time together, Belle, truly. I will never forget the service you have bestowed to my library, to my servants, and to me. I wish you and your father all the best in your future endeavours. If you do end up leaving Villeneuve, perhaps you could send word to Mr. and Mrs. Potts or Cogsworth for me? I would love to see you off and… bid you a formal farewell."
"I will." Belle smiled and nodded. "I would like that very much."
Adam's eyes were like glass in the sunlight. Not for the first time, Belle badly wished to know what he was thinking. "Umm…" he hesitated again. "The other reason I'm here is to give you this." He held out a book he had been carrying under his arm. "I just finished reading it last night. I trust by now that you know which shelf it belongs to?"
Belle took the book from the Prince and inspected the cover closely. "Guinevere and Lancelot?"
"Well, actually"—he cleared his throat—"King Arthur and the Round Table. Knights, and men, and swords and things..."
"But still... it's a romance," she pointed out with a smirk.
"All right," he conceded. "I felt like a change."
Satisfied that she'd won the argument, Belle walked over to the ladder to return the Prince's book. Maybe there was a romantic side to Monsieur "I don't believe in true love" after all.
The ladder shook under Belle's weight as she climbed the first few steps. From behind her, Adam called out in a concerned tone, "Has that ladder always been that rickety?"
Belle snorted and turned back to look at him. "It's perfectly safe, Adam. I've been using this one for weeks. If I had a problem with it, I would have told Cogsworth already."
She took a few more steps up the ladder which continued to shake under her steady grip, but she paid it no heed. Adam was such a worrywart, acting as though he'd never thought of his librarian—whom he'd hired himself—climbing ladders before.
"Belle?" Adam called out again, a little louder this time. "I really don't think you should be on that ladder."
"I'm fine!" she protested. She found the shelf that held Adam's King Arthur collection and placed his book together with the others. "Honestly."
Despite her reassurance, Adam's eyes continued to bore into her as she descended the steps. Now she was getting really annoyed. She hated being fussed over, and the fact that the Prince doubted she could complete a task as simple as climbing a ladder to re-shelve a book was utterly ridiculous. She was about to make a punchy remark about knowing how to handle herself when her left foot slipped on the step beneath her.
Her heart skipped a beat. In her effort to give a snarky response, she'd begun her descent without making sure she had both hands firmly gripping the ladder. Only one clear thought persisted: I'm such an idiot.
Not even a split-second later, she lost her footing and fell straight from the ladder.
"Belle!" Adam shouted in alarm.
It felt like several terrifying seconds had passed as she fell, but in reality, having not been even two storeys up, it could only have been three at most. She landed, not on the marble floor, but into the Prince's arms. Her breath was knocked out of her lungs. He must have been waiting to catch her at the base of the ladder in case this very incident occurred. His strong body was not impervious to gravity, however, and soon, the remaining force of her fall sent them both toppling to the ground.
The next thing Belle knew, she was lying on top of Adam in a highly compromising position and hoping their combined screams of terror hadn't travelled loudly enough to alert the servants. She wasn't sure she could handle the humiliation if they saw her with the Prince like this. Not to mention what her father would say if he found out.
"S-Sorry," she stammered.
Adam mustered a muffled grunt in reply.
Not wanting to inflict any further injury upon her rescuer, Belle tried to find a quick way to push herself off of him. This proved a challenge, however, as her hair had come loose from its ribbon during her fall, and now strands of it were hanging over her eyes. She cautiously shifted her left hand, reaching for what she thought was the floor, but ended up pressing on the Prince's upper arm instead.
Adam let out a sharp cry of pain. The sound startled Belle so much that she fell on top of him again. This time, her lips crashed straight against his mouth.
Suddenly, Belle was no longer in the library, but somewhere else entirely. She could feel the heat of the sun on her skin, hear the buzzing of insects, and smell soil and softwood wafting through the air. And she was kissing someone… kissing them with so much passion and abandon that there were tears pooling in her eyes and a fire building in her stomach. She had never felt this way before, this profound sense of agony, longing, and sorrow all rolled into one. The only coherent thought she could latch onto was that whoever she was kissing, he had to know that she loved him, and she forgave him...
All of a sudden, Belle was back in the library. She rolled herself off of Adam with a heavy gasp, barely aware of her surroundings as he sat up next to her. Whatever she'd experienced a moment ago, it definitely wasn't normal.
"Belle?" Adam said anxiously. "Are you all right?"
She looked over at him, and the sight of his wide greenish-blue eyes made her vision stand out even more clearly in her mind's eye. He had been there with her. She didn't understand how she knew this, but it was true. The revelation made her head spin and filled her mind with more questions than she could ever hope to answer.
Slowly, she opened her mouth, desperate to put even a sliver of her jumbled thoughts into words. "I…"
But before she could finish her sentence, something warm and sticky trickled out from her nose.
"Mon Dieu," Adam cursed, recognizing what had happened a second before she did. "Your nose is bleeding."
He quickly pulled a handkerchief out of his waistcoat and pressed it against her face. Belle was still disoriented but had enough sense to mutter a thanks, take the cloth from him and pinch the soft part of her nose to control the bleeding.
"This is all my fault," he rambled on. "I should have known that that no-good carpenter was trying to oversell me by installing those shoddy ladders. I'm going to talk to Cogsworth and write a strongly worded letter to—"
"I saw something," Belle cut in faintly, needing to say her piece before the vision slipped away.
Adam paused. "You... saw something?"
"Yes." She nodded. "Just now when I... fell on top of you. I was sitting under a tree in a big forest. It was summer. You were there with me and we were…" she hesitated, "kissing."
She lifted her eyes to him, desperate for some acknowledgment, some clue that he understood her, but there was none. Instead, his lips puckered and his face turned white as a sheet.
"Did you see anything else?" he demanded.
His shoulders sagged in relief, but that fear still hadn't left his eyes. Belle bit her lip dejectedly. He obviously didn't believe her, and now she regretted saying anything on the subject. Maybe the villagers are right. Maybe I am just a funny girl. A funny girl who reads too many books, hallucinates unlikely scenarios, and speaks in tongues...
"I think I ought to take you to see my physician," Adam said after another pause. "You might have a concussion."
"What about you?" It suddenly occurred to Belle that she might have injured Adam when he'd broken her fall. Even though he had caught her willingly, it pained her to think of him developing a scar or breaking a bone on account of her carelessness. She might even be charged with harming the crown prince, an outcome that would surely throw all her dreams of seeing the world out the window.
"Nonsense," Adam assured her. "I've fallen from greater heights from my horses in the woods. I'm sure I'll be fine."
One look at Belle's reproving glare, and he immediately changed his tune. "Fine," he relented. "I'll see him as well once he's finished examining you. Now come on."
With a strained smile, he extended his hand to her and helped her back to her feet. Their faces were inches apart from each other now. As though he were afraid of breaking her, he tentatively reached forward and brushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. The gesture made Belle's eyes well up with inexplicable tears. She badly wanted to kiss him—not in the clumsy, accidental way she just had, but with unrestrained fervour and desperation.
But why? Because she was grateful to him for saving her life? Because she feared the world would tilt from its axis if she didn't? It made no sense and yet the feeling lingered inside of her, like an uncontrollable itch.
And then she remembered that her hair was a mess and her face was partially covered in blood. It would hardly be appropriate to kiss him when she looked like such a fright. So she bowed her head and allowed him to lead her out of the room. Maybe this was all a strange dream—or a nightmare—she would soon wake from.
Docteur Pomme could find no evidence of a concussion, or any other life-threatening injuries during Belle's physical examination. He had her sit in the clinic for half-an-hour as a precaution, and after her nosebleed had stopped, and she showed no worsening symptoms, told her to go home and avoid doing any strenuous work for the rest of the day. Adam had left sometime after his own examination, saying he needed to talk to Cogsworth about fixing the ladder in the library. Belle didn't even have time to tell him that the fall had been her fault and not the ladder's, before he rushed out the door. He seemed eager to get away from her, much to her confusion and chagrin. She wondered if she would ever see him again and regretted ruining things badly enough to not be able to say a proper goodbye.
However, it soon became apparent that she had other things to worry about. As she walked back to the servants' quarters, Belle was suddenly struck by how unnaturally bright and clean the corridors looked. But that's ridiculous, she told herself. The castle has always been this way, hasn't it? She nearly jumped out of her skin as she heard Lumière and Cogsworth whispering behind her, but when she glanced over her shoulder, no one was there. A terrific chill ran down her spine. This castle, which she had recently considered her second home, now felt terribly wrong. She hastened her walk to the exit, feeling that she couldn't get back to her village fast enough.
On the buggy ride out of the castle, Belle stared absently out at the horizon. In the far distance of the grounds was a stone footbridge overlooking a lake. Adam had taken her there once to show her the water lilies, and Belle had been entranced by how utterly romantic the place was. It would be a perfect location for a marriage proposal, though she hadn't told him that at the time.
A sudden wave of dizziness overtook her. When she opened her eyes again, she was walking with someone on that same footbridge, only now it was the dead of winter, and the lake was frozen over. In her hands she held a book which she read aloud from in a measured cadence:
"The air is blue and keen and cold
And in a frozen sheath enrolled
Each branch, each twig, each blade of grass
Seems clad miraculously with…"
She paused, suddenly realizing that her companion had stopped to stare at the wintry scene in front of them. "Glass," she finished, regarding him curiously.
Her chaperone was an enormous beast with horns like a bison's and a body covered from head to foot in thick brown fur. Yet despite his frightening appearance, Belle did not feel threatened by this creature. On the contrary, he felt familiar, like a dear friend she had known for a very long time.
"It's as if I'm seeing it for the first time," he admitted after a moment of silence.
Belle searched the Beast's face in surprise. He was dressed like a man, and his eyes were the exact same shape and colour as Adam's eyes.
It had always been my plan for Belle to eventually get back her memories of her earlier timelines, and now that time has finally come. Rest assured that the angst in the following chapters will be nothing short of delicious.
I would also like to note that it's very unlikely that a bookshop in pre-revolutionary France would be selling books by an English protestant like James Fordyce, but as it was one of the only eighteen-century women's conduct books I could find online without having to go through a paywall or sifting through some hard to read primary document scans, I decided to make do. I find it funny that the villagers (namely the headmaster) in the 2017 film treat women and reading like a huge scandal, when in reality, reading material for women at that time was not that uncommon. To be more historically accurate, the townspeople should have been criticizing Belle for reading books for enjoyment, instead of for instructional or religious purposes, which was more socially acceptable for women to do at the time. Obviously Disney had to dumb down some details for a family movie, but as someone who studied women's history and literature for a while in university, you can say that this oversimplification bothered me just a tad.
Anyways, Happy Holidays, stay safe and looking forward to sharing some new updates with you all in the New Year!
Dinner that night was a quiet affair. Belle stared absently at her bowl of cabbage soup on the table, while Maurice prattled on about his latest developments on the windmill box, and how he had reconfigured the mechanical linkages to make the crank easier to turn. Normally, this sort of talk would fascinate Belle, but tonight, her thoughts were elsewhere. Her visions—which she'd hoped would go away once she returned to Villeneuve—had only gotten worse. Upon disembarking from the buggy on the outskirts of town, she'd heard more voices around her; fragmented conversations between herself and Gaston, Père Robert, Maurice, even Adam. And she'd had a faint recollection of a homeless woman with a weather-beaten face wandering the streets, begging for jams and alms. Belle swore she had known this woman on a first-name basis once, but who she was and where she had come from escaped her memory.
Needless to say, these spontaneous visions and echoes were beginning to scare her. It was one thing to read about someone's experiences in a book, and another to see then directly in her mind, with no means of stopping them. Docteur Pomme had ruled out the possibility of a concussion during her physical examination, leaving her to make wild guesses at the cause of her affliction. Either they were visions from God, like the ones the mystics used to receive in the Middle Ages, or the result of an inherited trait from an eccentric uncle her father had once told her about. Or perhaps there was a third possibility: that they were harmless manifestations of an overactive imagination and the stress of almost losing her life back in the library.
Whatever the reasons, Belle decided to keep quiet about the ordeal when she came home. Maurice had been surprised to see her back so early, to which she'd explained that she'd sustained a minor injury at work—nothing serious, but the castle physician had sent her home as a precaution. She wasn't sure how her father would react if she told him about her visions and didn't want to worry him on the slight chance that she was making a mountain out of a molehill. She hadn't even told him about the Prince rescuing her from her fall, or how she'd kissed him by accident in the ensuing chaos. That part was especially confusing to think about. She could only pray that Adam knew she had not meant anything by that kiss and that it would not affect their relationship going forward.
But despite her best efforts, Belle couldn't stay silent forever. It wasn't long before Maurice noticed his daughter was acting strangely and looked up from his dinner to address her. "Are you all right, Belle? You've been awfully quiet. Is it the soup? You know you can tell me if I put too much salt in it."
"It's fine," Belle murmured. "I'm just… worn out from today, that's all."
Her father stared at her thoughtfully, then nodded in understanding. "You shouldn't beat yourself up about what happened, you know. Accidents happen all the time. Why, did I ever tell you about the time your mother got struck by a runaway cart when she was running some errands in the quartier latin? She broke her leg and had to spend weeks on bedrest. The doctor thought she'd never be able to walk properly again. But your mother was determined to prove him wrong. She made a full recovery and got pregnant with you shortly after."
"Maman…" Belle placed a hand to her forehead, suddenly overtaken by another wave of dizziness. "She died because she was sick, wasn't she? She caught the White Plague when it came through Paris and you had to take me away and leave her behind..."
Maurice's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open in disbelief. "How could you possibly know that?"
She lowered her gaze. "I-I don't know."
All she knew was that she had a picture in her mind that wasn't there before, of standing in a crumbling, dusty attic full of nothing but old drawings, a baby rattle shaped like a rose and a plague mask. And the Beast—she didn't know his real name, or if he even had one—had been there with her, helping her uncover the details of her mother's death. Once they'd pieced together all the evidence and realized what had happened, Belle wished she'd never learned the truth.
She slouched back in her seat, overcome by a tremendous wave of sadness—not so much for her mother, but something nameless and intangible, like a long-forgotten dream. A dense fog clouded her thoughts, preventing her from discerning fact from fiction. Had she always known how her mother had died, and somehow buried that truth away, deep within her heart of hearts? But then, how could she justify the Beast being with her in the attic? Surely a creature like him couldn't exist beyond the pages of a storybook. But to her, he seemed as real as the sunset, and her father sitting across from her at the table. It made no sense, and yet—
She looked back up at her father, who was staring at her with his lips pursed and his brows drawn up in concern.
Opening her mouth, she tried to think of something reassuring to say to him, but her mind came up empty. "I'm not feeling well," she said after a prolonged moment of silence. "I think I'm going to turn in early tonight."
Without another word, she set down her spoon and headed upstairs. Maurice didn't stop her, but his worried stare followed her the entire way.
Once she was in her bedroom, Belle closed the door behind her, stripped down into her chemise and washed her face using the basin on her bedside table. Then, she took out her rosary and prayed as hard as she could, careful to make sure that she didn't miss a single bead on her string. After she had completed her last prayer to the Virgin Mary, she added a prayer for herself: to be rid of these strange visions and whatever unnatural forces might be responsible for conjuring them. She hoped that sleep would come easily to her that night. But it didn't.
The moment her head hit her pillow; Belle was plagued by another series of vivid, disconcerting images. A pack of wolves surrounded her in a snowy forest, and the Beast was fending them off with his bare paws. They were having a snowball fight in the castle grounds and the Beast had thrown a ball at her so hard that the impact sent her falling flat on her back. She was dancing with him in the ballroom; a scene that would seem utterly abnormal in any other circumstance, but to her, felt perfectly natural. As he lifted her into the air and spun her around the room, she felt a strange sense of vulnerability and weightlessness, a feeling she'd only experienced around one other person before…
The Beast's face faded and morphed into another set of memories. She was bickering with Adam by the side of a riverbank—something about needing to find her father and insisting he was responsible for helping her. They were standing on the balcony of another castle, dressed in fine clothes and opening up to each other about their pasts. They were at a campsite and he was fencing with a man twice his size before a devastating explosion turned their world upside down and set it on fire. Belle somehow managed to land in the canvas of a broken tent, which cushioned her fall. But Adam was not as lucky. When she found him bleeding to death in the burning rubble, she knew that nothing would be the same again.
Evening had fallen, and the fugitives had stopped to camp in the woods, right on the border between Pays de la Loire and Brittany. At the pace they were moving at, Agathon predicted that it would be another six hours before they reached the Forest of Brocéliande. To Belle, that moment could not come fast enough. They had been on the road for over half a day since the explosion, trying to throw off King Gaston's men. As much as she loathed to admit it, "adventure in the great wide somewhere" was beginning to take its toll on her. She had not expected this journey to be so physically or emotionally taxing when she'd first signed up for it. Nor had she considered the potential casualties she'd have to shoulder along the way.
She knelt next to her wounded patient and applied a damp cloth to his feverish forehead. While Agathon had healed the worst of his injuries with a potion he'd made that morning, Adam was still in bad shape, and would likely be that way for a while. Not only had he lost an alarming amount of blood, but he was fighting off both an infection and the residual effects of Médée's truth-telling potion. Based on Agathon's assessment, he would not regain consciousness in quite some time. And as awful as it sounded, Belle was secretly glad. At least this way, she'd have more time to process his confession in the tent and what it all meant exactly.
Her thoughts were interrupted as the Prince suddenly stirred beneath her and opened his eyes. His gaze met hers moments later. "Belle?" he said weakly.
Belle gasped and pulled herself away from him. She hadn't expected him to wake up so soon. Now she was struggling to think of something to say that would fill the awkward silence between them.
She didn't have to think long, however, before he smiled faintly and added, "You came back."
It was the strange tenderness in his voice that made her remember how to speak again. "O-Of course I did," she stammered. "You were injured. There was no way I was going to leave you alone in the King's camp like that."
Adam seemed confused by this answer. With furrowed brows, he replied, "But I'm a monster. I imprisoned you in my castle and sent your father away. My life isn't yours to be concerned with anymore. You should be far away from here."
Castle? It was a second before Belle understood. He was hallucinating. He believed he was back in that other timeline, the one where he'd been transformed into a hideous beast and had forced her to live with him as his prisoner. Despite the absurdity of his tale, Belle had opened herself to the possibility that it was true, wanting to support his quest to end King Gaston's regime above anything else. She hadn't fully believed in his words… until now.
As she looked into Adam's eyes, Belle saw a haunting darkness and vulnerability there; a small window into the torment he'd suffered for those five terrible years. There was something else too, a kind of profound desperation, like when he was looking at her, he was looking at the meaning of life itself. No one had ever looked at her that way before, and it made her feel… flustered? Uncertain? Confused? But it was only for a moment before he blinked and turned away from her.
"Oh, I was such a fool," he lamented. "How could I ever think I deserved your love, being what I am? It was just a dream. Just a stupid dream."
Love. Belle exhaled sharply. There was that word again. He had said it back when Médée was interrogating him, confessing in a broken, anguished voice that he loved her. She had stood there in frozen shock, unsure of how she was supposed to react.
How long has he been hiding that secret from me? Based on the way he was addressing her now; it must have been for far longer than she'd expected. He'd spent three days with her on the road, repressing his emotions, pretending he didn't think of her as anything more than an irritating piece of filth on his boots, and she'd had no idea.
When Belle looked at her unsuspecting admirer again, he had gone back to sleep, and she felt strangely unsatisfied. Her mind was racing with dozens of questions that only one person could possibly answer.
"So, how is he?" asked Agathon.
He and Belle were sitting around the campfire, eating the wild vegetable soup he'd cooked for them earlier. Of all the crazy things Belle had learned about this week, Agathon's true identity as an enchanter had come as the lightest shock. His eccentricity and potent herbal remedies had always been the talk of her village, making his backstory the easiest to accept. She also couldn't deny that his magic had been a boon in saving Adam's life and getting them out of danger. Even now, as they stopped to camp, he'd gone to painstaking lengths to cast protective spells around their campsite, while collecting more herbs to grind into medicine for Adam. He had done nothing to break their trust, and for that, he had earned Belle's respect and gratitude.
"He's not exactly… better," she told him hesitantly. "But he's not getting worse either. He woke up for a bit when I was tending to him earlier. Only… I'm almost entirely sure he was hallucinating."
"Really?" Agathon tilted his head. "What did he say?"
"Well, he was very disoriented for one. He thought he was a monster and said I should have left his castle to be with my father already. And then he said something about not deserving my love. When he looked at me it was like… like he was looking at someone else."
"Hmm. Well, isn't that something?" Agathon scratched his beard. "Fevers and bad potions aren't exactly a recipe for a sound mind—that much is certain. But I'm sure he'll be back to normal in a few more days."
Belle nodded, having convinced herself as much. But somehow, she'd expected an enchanter who knew a lot about potions and healing fatal injuries to know a bit… more? "It's just, I heard him say something similar when Médée was interrogating him at the campsite," she elaborated. "At one point, she asked him if he loved me. He tried to resist at first, but eventually, he said that he did. It made me wonder…" She looked up at the Enchanter again. "Do you know anything more about his past?"
"Ah. Well, that's a bit of a vague question to ask, mademoiselle. The nature of my answer would depend on which part of his past you're referring to exactly."
"I know he's a time-traveller," she emphasized. "And I also know that he killed your twin sister by accident. Though his reasons for getting here are still difficult for me to wrap my head around."
"Why not start with what you know?" he encouraged.
She shrugged. "I suppose."
With a deep breath, she reiterated to him what Adam had told her about his time-travelling misadventures. Primarily, that he was once a cursed beast who'd used a magic book to reverse time and prevent his spell from happening. His last attempt at destroying the enchantress who'd bewitched him had brought him to this reality, which he was now desperate to undo. That was where Agathon came in.
"I just feel like there was something more he wasn't telling me," she concluded. "Something about our history that he'd chosen to hide."
"It is possible." Agathon nodded. "Maybe… well, I think you'd be better off asking him about it yourself when he wakes up."
"But what if he doesn't want to tell me? It took him three days to reveal the full details of his mission to me. Who knows how much longer it will take for him to open up again after he recovers? You tended to his wounds after he helped my father escape from the King. Did he say anything to you then? Anything at all?"
Agathon sighed and proceeded to stoke the campfire with a broken branch he was holding. "If you really must know, his curse was reversible," he disclosed. "But the conditions he needed to break it were nearly impossible. That's why he went back in time. He wanted to try again."
"What were his conditions?" asked Belle, leaning closer to the flames.
"Ah ah." He waggled his finger at her. "I've said my part and that's as far as I'll go. Let him tell you the rest when he's ready. And believe me, he will tell you."
"Hmph." Belle crossed her arms and scowled. Any other person would have accepted Agathon's words at face value, but she was stubborn and therefore, unwilling to give in so easily. "If I'm supposed to be supporting him, I have to know the full story of his past, not what he chooses to tell me," she argued. "Besides, it's part of my history, too. I think I at least have the right to understand my part in this, and ideally from someone who's been an impartial observer to it all."
Agathon's mouth twitched at the sides. "You really are a persuasive girl, you know that? You might even have what it takes to be a decent private investigator one day. Fine." He took a deep breath. "Here's what I know. When my sister came to the Prince's castle to test him, she offered him a rose as payment for shelter from a bitter storm. After he turned her away, she cursed him and left him the rose as a timepiece. Her rules were simple: earn the love of another and earn their love in return before the last petal fell. If not, he would remain a beast for all time. And so, he waited for five years, watching the petals fall, with no hope of fulfilling her terms. Then one day, an old man gets lost in the woods and stumbles across his castle. The Beast imprisons the man for stealing a rose from his gardens but doesn't count on him having a daughter who's reckless enough to look for him. When she finds him locked up in his dungeon, she makes an exchange: her freedom for her old man's. For the Beast, it's the one opportunity he's been waiting for."
"But Adam told me he let me go because my sentence was up," Belle countered. "If he needed to keep me as his prisoner to break his curse, why would he suddenly change that arrangement?"
"You know, for someone who's supposedly read enough books to fill the Library of Alexandria, I'd think the answer would be quite obvious." Agathon smirked. "The quick answer is: love. It makes us do crazy things, forces us to put other people's needs before our own, even break rules we swore we'd never break. In my younger years, I used to hate my sister. I thought she was such a show-off, flaunting her powers, preaching about how we had a 'moral obligation' to fix mankind's problems. I wanted nothing to do with her… that was, until the day I lost her. Now I'd give anything to have her back. Your prince must have felt the same way when he let you go. He loved you so much, he was willing to give up his only chance at freedom to make you happy. But when he realized his book could change time, he put all his energy into trying whatever he could to get another chance with you."
Belle wrapped her arms around her knees and stared vacantly into the fire. She supposed that if tragic heroes existed in the real world, Adam fit the role almost perfectly. But even though she found such characters fascinating—even alluring to read about in books, she wasn't sure if she felt the same about him. She felt sorry for him yes, but love him?
The truth was, she still didn't know the Prince very well. They'd only been together for four days and he'd distanced himself from her for two of them. Her mind was still reeling over the unexpected confession he'd made. "I just… I'm not sure how to feel about all this," she admitted. "I was so awful to him when we first met. Even now, I'm not sure if I can return his affections."
"Nor is he expecting you to," Agathon said gently. "The important thing is that we get him to the Nexus Tree so he can fix this timeline. I'm going to take the first watch tonight. I'll wake you up when I need you. Now get some rest."
Belle nodded and placed a hand over her mouth to stifle a yawn. She had been a bag of mixed emotions since yesterday, worrying about Adam's health, trying to focus on the mission, mulling over his startling declaration. Maybe a few hours of sleep was what she needed to clear her head. At least, she hoped this would be the case.
In the middle of the night, Belle awoke to the sound of loud moaning and sobbing coming from across the campsite.
"No! I'm sorry. Please… please, forgive me. I didn't mean it. I'll do anything. Anything!"
Her eyes shot open. That was Adam's voice! In a flash, she threw aside her blankets and rushed towards his sleeping spot. What she saw there made her heart sink. Adam was thrashing violently in his blankets, as though an invisible enemy were attacking him. The sight made her sick to her stomach. All that movement would do no good for his wound—assuming he hadn't reopened it already. And with Agathon still away on watch, it fell to her to minimize the damage.
"Adam!" she called out to him hoarsely. "It's alright. It's just a dream!"
When he continued to thrash wildly in place, she knelt to his level and shook his shoulders. "Adam!"
He opened his eyes and stared at her in wide-eyed bewilderment. "B-Belle?"
"Yes, it's me."
His mouth trembled. "Oh, Belle. I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back to being him. I just wanted to be free, but look at what it's cost me—"
"Shh," she cooed. "You were having a nightmare. Go back to sleep."
Even in the semi-darkness, she could see how bright and glossy his eyes were. He stopped struggling and lay still, though his breathing continued to be rapid and heavy. "I… I thought I lost you," he uttered.
His fingers lightly brushed against her hand, causing her to shudder in surprise. He was trying to reach for her but was too weak to do so.
Her heart pounded loudly in her ears. She had never been one for physical contact, especially with people she didn't know very well... but perhaps the gesture would comfort the Prince in his delirium? Slowly, she slipped her hand under his and watched his reaction. He responded to her almost immediately, knotting his fingers through hers and caressing the side of her hand with his thumb. His skin was remarkably soft and warm against her own.
Gradually, his breathing steadied and his eyelids fluttered shut.
"Thank you," he muttered before drifting back into unconsciousness.
Belle remained motionless for the next few minutes, afraid of pulling her hand away in case she woke him again. Why am I doing this? she asked herself. Is it because I'm concerned for his well-being as a friend? Or… is it because I feel something more?
All she knew was that she had to check on the wound. So, once she was sure that he was asleep, she lifted his blanket and the bottom of his shirt to assess the damage. There was no blood leaking through his bandages, much to her relief, meaning that Agathon's potion was doing its job. Still, she made a mental note to tell the Enchanter what had happened when they switched shifts later. Given his years of healing experience, he would be a much better judge of knowing if Adam's bandages needed to be changed or not. And as much as Belle worried for her patient, she'd rather not make the mistake of trying to fix something that didn't need to be fixed.
After covering him up with his blanket again, Belle drew her attention to Adam's sleeping face. Now that his breathing had settled, she could almost appreciate how serene he looked; completely disconnected from reality and unburdened by the world's problems. The sight brought a small smile to her lips and a painful lump to her throat. All he wanted was to get his humanity back. To know what it was to love and be loved in return. She should have hated him for ruining so many lives to pursue those desires. He was no different from his brother, or any of the other selfish aristocrats who ran her country. Instead, she could only think of how deeply he wore that guilt, to the point that it haunted him in his sleep. He'd tried to protect her from his mistakes by pretending to abandon his kingdom when he wanted to sacrifice himself for it. And she'd been too riled up in her own self-righteousness to question if he was carrying a deeper secret beneath all that callousness.
The realization of her folly stung like a sharp slap to the face. Her vision blurred as a well of tears trickled from her eyes.
She could still feel them running down her face when she woke up.
As morning broke over the little town, Belle felt like she'd barely slept. Her dream about looking after the Prince had been followed by several others, all in various levels of vividness. It was as though she had lived three different lives in one night, but barely understood what any of it meant. She lacked the mental energy to process it all without getting a headache.
Upon rising from her bed, Belle felt a wave of aches and chills run down her body. When she walked to her wardrobe, her limbs could not seem to move in sync with her brain. Something told her that she shouldn't go to work today, but she quickly banished the thought. This was her last day at the castle, and there were still so many things she had to do. Finish sorting out the bookshelf by the fireplace, say goodbye to her friends, pick up the last of her wages from the castle accountant. Whatever sickness she carried; she was sure she could weather it. She refused to let her restless night overrule her priorities or her sense of reality.
Belle had no idea how she managed to get dressed, make breakfast, or leave the house in time to catch the eight o'clock wagon to the castle. She didn't see her father on the way out, so she assumed he'd slept in or gone down to the cellar early to work on his music boxes. She felt guilty about leaving him alone to clean up dinner last night and reminded herself to apologize to him for it later.
As she was passing through the servants' entrance, a voice called out to her in surprise. "Belle?"
She turned towards the sound and almost screamed. Just a few feet away from her was a porcelain teapot sitting on an ornate tea trolley. The teapot had a face like a woman's, and it was blinking at her.
Belle took a step back and pressed her hands over her eyes. When she looked up again, Mrs. Potts was standing where the tea trolley had been. Her brows were furrowed with concern.
"So sorry, love, I didn't mean to startle you. But you look as pale as a ghost! What's happened?"
"N-nothing," Belle stuttered while peering around the cook to see if the teapot was still there. It wasn't. "I'm perfectly fine."
Mrs. Potts continued to frown at the young woman, clearly unconvinced. She placed her hand against her forehead, then drew it back in alarm. "My goodness, I shouldn't say so! You're burning up something awful. Come on, let me take you somewhere to lie down."
"No, really, Mrs. Potts, I'm fine," Belle insisted. "I didn't get enough sleep last night, that's all." No sooner had she said it than another dizzying sensation overtook her senses. She could hear Mrs. Potts saying something about "most troubles being less troubling after a bracing cup o' tea" but had no idea when or why she had said such a thing.
By now, the real Mrs. Potts' eyebrows had risen so high, they looked about ready to fly off her forehead. "We'll let the physician be the judge of that," she declared. "Come now—and not another word about being 'fine.' I know a fever when I feel it."
Before Belle could protest again, the matronly woman escorted her over to the servants' quarters. She set her up in an unused bedroom and told her to lie down while she sent another servant to find Docteur Pomme. Belle tried to stay awake, but her eyes were so sore and heavy; it soon became apparent that she was fighting a losing battle. She drifted off again, and the dreams she dreamt were far from pleasant.
Docteur Pomme confirmed that Belle was indeed running a high fever, though how she had acquired it so quickly remained a mystery. Given her debilitating state, he knew that sending her back to Villeneuve was out of the question. They would have to keep her at the castle until he could run some more tests and fully diagnose her condition.
With the help of Plumette, Mrs. Potts changed Belle out of her dress and into a clean nightshift. They opened all the windows in the room and brought in a basin of cold water and a washcloth to soothe her burning skin. Finally, Mrs. Potts fed her a few spoonfuls of ginger tea infused with honey and lemon juice, hoping to bring down her raging fever.
Whether these treatments had any effect on the young librarian was anyone's guess. The girl began to toss and turn in her sleep, calling out for "Adam" or "Beast" at random intervals. The second word especially concerned the older woman. The way she said it… it was like she was calling for a person instead of a creature. Only, it was a person Mrs. Potts had never heard of before, neither at the castle nor at Villeneuve.
As castle matriarch—a position she had held for many years—Beatrice Potts was no stranger to sickness. Fever, infection, smallpox and consumption were some of the many illnesses she had treated during her long tenure. But to see a kind and intelligent girl like Belle fall victim to an illness that was just as severe as it was mysterious was utterly devastating. She genuinely feared for the girl's life and hoped she had enough strength to overcome whatever had caused her affliction.
When Mrs. Potts left the room, Lumière and Cogsworth were standing outside the door with identical expressions of concern on their faces.
"How is she?" Lumière asked first.
Mrs. Potts lowered her gaze. "I don't want to jump to conclusions. But I can say that it's a very good thing she came to us when she did. At least this way, she'll have around-the-clock care and a comfortable place to rest while she recovers. Everything else is in the Lord's hands."
Cogsworth nodded solemnly. "I've spoken to John, and he's gone over to Villeneuve to tell Monsieur Gagnier what's happened. He's offering to bring him back here in case he wants to see his daughter or spend the night."
"Thank you, Cogsworth." Mrs. Potts smiled in approval. "I'm sure Maurice will appreciate that."
Lumière bit his lip and leaned in to whisper to Mrs. Potts, "Do you think we should let the Master know?"
"What, are you mad?" Cogsworth said, having overheard his co-worker despite his whispering. "He'd be halfway to Courbecour by now and won't be back for at least another week. Besides, he has his meeting with the Duke of Pontavice to worry about. He has far more important things to focus on than the health of one servant girl."
Lumière looked at him, aghast, and shook his head. "I clearly gave you far more credit than you deserve, mon ami. How could you not see he cares for Belle as more than a servant alone? It is obvious! Mrs. Potts, surely, you agree?"
"I won't deny noticing a spark between them," Mrs. Potts admitted. "They were very comfortable together, which is unusual for both of them. And Belle has been calling for him in her sleep, which I wouldn't write off as a coincidence. But whether it would be worth sending a messenger to tell the Master about her condition is a different matter."
"Doesn't it seem strange that she gets sick on the same day the Master leaves for Comblenoir?" Lumière questioned. "Maybe something happened between them."
"Like what?" asked Cogsworth.
"Je ne sais pas." He shrugged. "Perhaps... he broke her heart. Fevers can sometimes result from powerful emotions like grieving and heartache, can't they? There is a possibility she attempted to confess her feelings when they were in the library, and he rejected her. If she thought he was misleading her, then it is no wonder she is so afflicted."
"He seemed awfully quiet after she went home yesterday," Cogsworth admitted. "I assumed it was because he was concerned about her injury, or his trip, but perhaps I was mistaken."
"We can speculate as much as we want, but it won't do any good unless we can hear it firsthand from Belle or the Master," Mrs. Potts concluded. "What we can do is wait for Docteur Pomme's prognosis. Who knows? Maybe she has a minor case of influenza and will recover before the Prince returns."
"Maybe," Lumière repeated in a half-hearted tone.
The three of them stood together in mutual silence, lost in their own thoughts. None of them knew what the future held for Belle and could only pray that God in all His wisdom had the answer.
Adam and Chapeau arrived at the Château de Courbecour shortly after one o'clock that afternoon. Since they arrived so early, Adam had plenty of time to settle into his guest suite, write a letter to his cousin and review his notes for his meeting with the Duke de Pontavice on Wednesday.
When evening came, he went downstairs to eat dinner with the Prince de Mailly-Nesle and his family. Though he tried his hardest to listen to his host's discussion on new trade opportunities with Germany, he could feel his concentration slipping as the night progressed. Many times, he had to ask the prince to repeat himself—a blunder that was only excused by the long length of the table and the persistent clanging of everyone's plates and silverware. He couldn't shake off the feeling that something was amiss, but for sake of being a polite guest, forced himself to bury the sentiment and continue the conversation.
After the dessert plates were cleared away, Adam bid his hosts goodnight and returned to his chambers. Only then did he allow himself to focus on what had been bothering him all day: his unfinished business at the Château de la Rose, which had the potential to turn disastrous if he didn't find a way of fixing it.
For the past week, Adam had toyed with telling Belle everything about their past. Spit it out without sugar-coating anything or hiding his true feelings for her. If she didn't believe him or thought he was making fun of her, so be it. At least she'd know the truth, even if to her, it would seem far from truthful. He could part ways with her in peace, knowing he'd tried being honest and still come up empty.
But his nerves had failed him not once, but twice. The first time was when he'd walked into the library to say his goodbyes. He would have shared everything with her right then and there, if she hadn't made him second guess himself by bringing up the Duke's niece. Adam didn't want to marry Mademoiselle de Pontavice. He didn't even know her. But maybe Belle was right, and the truth could wait a little longer. Maybe if he put off telling the tale until he returned from Courbecour, he'd find a better way of explaining everything without sounding like a fool.
The second time he'd lost his courage was when Belle had fallen from the ladder after returning Guinevere and Lancelot to the upper shelves. As Adam helped her off the floor and searched her face, he could think of only two things: how he'd nearly lost her, and how desperately he wanted to kiss her.
Which was not only irrational, but stupid. Belle was frightened enough without him bearing down at her like a dumbstruck mule. A kiss from him would not only be improper; it would be far from welcome. So, he settled for brushing a strand of hair away from her face instead—an innocent gesture, but one that left a hollow feeling in his stomach. He spent the whole walk to Docteur Pomme's clinic thinking of how close he'd been to opening his heart to her, only to bow out again when the opportunity finally showed itself.
Of course, he may have felt less hesitant about confessing his feelings if it weren't for an incident that occurred a few moments earlier. In a shaky voice, Belle had told him she'd seen them kissing under a tree in the summertime. All the blood had drained from Adam's face. There was no way she could have remembered their first kiss in Brocéliande. Agathe had promised him it wouldn't happen—only he could remember that other reality. But then again, Adam already knew that enchanters and their magic could be as fickle as the wind. Had Belle somehow remembered that moment, just by being in his presence? Or had her impromptu kiss—if he could call it that—been the catalyst? Adam had no answers, but the possibility of her regaining her memories gave him every reason to panic. It was one thing to tell her everything himself, and another for her to remember it all on her own. He didn't want her memories of the past to influence her present. He'd tried to avoid revealing their secret for that very reason.
And so, he escorted her to Docteur Pomme's clinic, pretending he didn't have a clue what she was talking about. He left her behind with barely a word, knowing that distancing himself was the best way to escape that impossible situation. He'd taken things too far and let himself get too close. It was time to rethink his priorities and put the girl behind him, for good.
I am a Prince of France, he told himself firmly. My duty is to my kingdom first and my heart second. He'd spent five years trying to correct the mistakes of the past. He sure as hell wasn't about to relapse after everything he'd overcome. Maybe it would be better to marry Mademoiselle de Pontavice immediately, just to shut that door while he still could. Marriage would put an end to this pointless sentimentality; always moping about and pining for a life that might have been.
It sounded like a great idea in theory, so why did it leave him feeling so anxious? He crossed his arms and paced restlessly around the room; certain he wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight.
What he needed was a drink. A stiff drink that would numb his senses and silence that infernal voice in his head: "You shouldn't have left Belle behind. You had a perfect opportunity to make things right with her, and you blew it." Sure, he'd be breaking his sobriety for the first time in five years, but it wasn't like anyone had to know about it. It was just for one night. Then he'd be fine again.
Decision made, Adam rang the bell near the door of his guest room. As he waited for a valet to appear, he sat on the edge of the bed and watched the rain drip against the windowpanes.
After a minute or two, he heard the door swing open, followed by the creak of hurried footsteps against the hardwood. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Bring me a bottle of liquor, please. Any kind will do."
There was a pause, and then the servant asked, "Is that how you greet an old acquaintance?"
Registering the man's familiar voice, Adam turned around and gasped. Not a valet, but a bearded man in a threadbare cloak stood by the door. His blonde hair hung loosely from his shoulders, and his eyes were grey and sharp-looking.
Adam stood up from the mattress, eyes wide in disbelief. "Agathon?"
"Yes, it's me." The Enchanter smirked. "Seems I arrived at the perfect time, too. Didn't anyone tell you that liquor is seriously bad for your liver?"
Adam's cheeks burned, feeling like a child whose hand had been caught in the cookie jar. Wanting to divert the subject to one more pressing, he asked, "How did you get in here? The prince's guards… there's no way—"
"I have my methods," Agathon replied with a mischievous grin. "Agathe's not the only one who knows to slip into a castle unannounced. The only difference is, I prefer doing it with less bravado, and without dousing any candlesticks."
Adam wasn't sure if he was supposed to laugh or tilt his head at this strange comment. Instead, he said, "Why are you here?"
"Agathe sent me," Agathon answered. "She wanted to be here herself, only she's away in Tibet, learning how to meditate from some monks." He rolled his eyes, and Adam wasn't sure if he was more annoyed at his sister, or the fact that she was meditating with some monks in Tibet. "Also, she felt you'd be more open to hearing this information if it came from me than her." He took a quick glance around the room. "Do you mind if we sit down? My feet are killing me."
Adam had no reason to refuse, especially when Agathon had promised to share some seemingly important information from his sister. He gestured to two armchairs at the corner of the room where they could continue their conversation.
"So, what is this message from Agathe?" he asked as they took their seats. On the table between them was a bowl of fruit. Agathon inspected it with interest, then picked a green apple out from the lot. Adam frowned in annoyance but didn't stop him. After all, he still owed the man a great deal for helping him out of his last timeline.
"Let's just say there's been a slight… deviation in her magic," Agathon explained. "The same spell she used to bring you back to your original reality has found its way to somebody else. Nothing serious, but still important to know about."
"Who is this 'somebody else?'" Adam questioned, while left with a sinking suspicion that he already knew the answer.
"It's Belle. She's remembering her other timelines. And not just a few scattered memories. She's remembering everything."
Adam winced. Agathon had confirmed everything he'd feared, and worse. "But… how is that possible?" he mused. "Agathe said only I would remember those other timelines."
"And she was right," the Enchanter replied, taking a casual bite from his apple. "But there are always exceptions, rare as they might be. Normally, two things need to happen to restore a person's alternative memories. First, you need a strong emotional bond formed between the time traveller and the individual involved. Second, the couple must confirm this bond through an intimate act like kissing or expressing their feelings. The magic flows from the time traveller to the recipient, allowing them to remember the same things as their host. But... it gets more complicated than that."
Adam groaned. "Doesn't it always?"
"Sometimes, magic can cause an adverse reaction when it's passed from one body to another," Agathon continued. "Some recipients are lucky to only get mild symptoms, like nosebleeds or headaches. In more extreme cases, the relapse of memories can overstimulate the brain and trigger a seizure. In Belle's case, she's currently confined to your castle, delirious and suffering from a high fever. None of the servants know what her illness is or what caused it."
Adam bit his lip, feeling like someone had punched him in the gut with a pair of thick brass knuckles. "Is it possible for her to... die from these memories?" he asked nervously.
"No." Agathon gave him a reassuring smile. "She's young, and her body will learn to fight off her illness in time. But as for her mind... well, I'm sorry to say there's a good chance she'll never be the same again. Whether you like it or not, Your Highness, Belle will always remember her connection to you after today."
Adam sank even further into his armchair, wishing that the floor would open up and swallow him whole. "I didn't want this to happen," he said in a trembling voice. "I wanted Belle to live a normal life without me influencing her decisions. I told your sister I wanted her to be free of me. That's what I wanted, goddammit!"
"You told her you wanted Belle to follow her dreams and make her own choices," Agathon calmly corrected. "It seems to me, despite all your efforts at keeping her at bay, the girl has still chosen you."
Adam opened his mouth, trying to find a flaw in that statement, but failing. "But… why?" he asked instead. How could Belle fall for him, a cynical man with a tainted track record, who still couldn't stop himself from lashing out at his servants when he was angry? Maybe Belle hadn't seen that side of him yet, but that didn't mean he wasn't aware of it. None of this made sense, yet the question lingered.
Agathon sighed and rolled his eyes. "Are you really going to make me spell it out for you? You took an interest in her. You listened to her ideas and respected her as an individual. You never took advantage of her or forced her to do anything against her will. The whole foundation of your friendship was built on consent and mutual understanding. And to be honest, I don't think that kiss would have affected her so severely unless her heart had already decided—"
"No!" Adam howled again. But even as he said it, he couldn't help but wonder.
Since the start of their "friendship," he had often worried that Belle was spending time with him out of obligation, not amity. To test the theory, he'd told her that they didn't have to spend every day together. She was free to talk with the staff in the kitchens or go home early whenever she pleased. But Belle had insisted she was happy to pass the time with him. That she too wanted to experience a friendship with someone who shared in her interests. And so, those afternoons became a welcome routine for both of them. She'd stayed with him willingly, fallen in love with him willingly, and Adam had been too busy wrestling with his own conflicted emotions to notice. Oh, I am fortune's fool! If Lumière could see him now, he'd surely be making a jest of how short-sighted he'd been.
"I suppose I have to go back to her now," he resolved. "Tell her I'm sorry for lying to her, and hope she'll have the heart to forgive me. That's why you're here, isn't it? To make me change my mind?"
"On the contrary." Agathon smirked. "You're a busy man, Your Highness. It's clear you've got more doors open to you now than you did five years ago. With all your royal commitments, winning the heart of a peasant girl is probably on the bottom of your to-do list! Agathe just wanted me to let you know what to expect when you return to your castle. It's up to you to decide what to do with that information."
Adam scowled. If he didn't know better, he'd think that Agathon was mocking him for putting duty over his heart. As if he'd ever made the decision to let Belle go lightly! But there was still one thing he needed to know before he made his final decision. "Suppose I go forward with my meeting with the Duke and his niece, and never make contact with Belle again. What will happen to her?"
"She'll move on... in time," Agathon admitted hesitantly. "With no one to confirm her memories, she'll eventually pass them off as fever dreams. She and Maurice will move to another town, where she'll spend her prime years going on some of the adventures she's always dreamed about. But deep down, she'll never be able to shake off the feeling that something's missing from her life. She'll never be able to stop thinking of what might have been… if the visions of you and her were real."
Damn. Adam stared at the floor in guilt. He knew that pain all too well, from all the years he'd spent, trying to forget Belle's face and the memories of spending time with her. He'd wasted half a decade trying to distance himself, knowing it was the only way to give her the freedom she rightfully deserved. But he'd failed, hurting her all the same, and now she would never be able to forget him. The tables had turned, and this time, Adam could see no clear way out of his predicament.
"And... if I go back to her?" he said hesitantly. "Will she be angry with me for lying to her?"
"She might." Agathon shrugged. "As you know, that girl can be as impulsive as she can be stubborn. But I think after she had a bit of time to stew, she'd start thinking less about why you didn't tell her, and more about why you returned."
Adam quietly contemplated this. It wasn't the most encouraging outcome, but it did give him some hope. Maybe there was a chance he could still make amends with Belle, or at least, make her understand why he'd never told her the truth. If she refused to talk to him again after that confession, he wouldn't stop her. It was still her life, and he had no right to interfere with it, no matter what the past said. He respected her enough to let her make her own decisions in that regard. "I guess I know what my decision is, then," he decided.
"So it seems." Agathon smiled and extended his hand to him. In his fingers, he held a tiny, cylindrical vial containing a clear liquid. "Have her drink this when you see her. It's a potion that will ease the flow of her memories so her body will heal faster. I'd give it to her myself, only I'm pretty sure it would look less suspicious coming from you than from a complete stranger."
"Thank you." Adam accepted the vial dutifully. But the words didn't come close to the gratitude he felt for the Enchanter at that moment. He was fully indebted to him for coming here and helping him think clearly for the first time in ages.
"Best get a move on, Your Highness," Agathon prompted. "There's a lot of road between Courbecour and the Château de la Rose."
Adam opened his eyes, which was strange because he didn't remember closing them. He was sitting on his bed again, watching the rain streak against the windows. Turning around, he was startled to see his valet standing by the door, eyeing him with a puzzled expression. Even more alarming was that Agathon had mysteriously vanished from the room. Almost as though he'd never been there at all.
"Erm... good evening, Chapeau," Adam said in unease. "What are you doing here?"
"You rang the bell for me?" Chapeau replied with a confused tilt of his head. "I arrived as quickly as I could."
Adam furrowed his brows, trying to make sense of this information. Had his encounter with Agathon been a hallucination, or a trick of the Enchantress, testing to see if his love for Belle was still true?
Looking down at his hand, he was surprised to notice that he was still holding the vial Agathon had given him. His heart pounded with adrenaline at the sight of it. Suddenly, he knew exactly what he needed to do.
"I have to leave." He stood up from the bed and went to retrieve his coat from the wardrobe.
"Leave?" Chapeau looked as though his master had decided to renounce his crown to live as a hermit in the woods. "But… where? It's after sundown. You can't be thinking of going anywhere now!"
"I need to return to the Château de la Rose," Adam replied curtly. "There's been an emergency. Something's happened to Belle."
If Chapeau wondered how the Prince knew something had happened to Belle despite the lack of concrete evidence, he didn't ask. Instead, he said, "Master, you said you wanted to come all this way so you could get a head-start on your meeting with the Duke de Pontavice tomorrow. And now you're telling me that you're going to ride for five hours in the rain, just to see Mademoiselle Gagnier?"
"To hell with what I said before," Adam growled. "I love her!" He would never forget how good it felt to say those words out loud. "She means more to me than any meeting with the Duke de Pontavice ever will. I'm not expecting you to come with me, but I need you to understand—"
"Master, I do understand, but hear me out!" Chapeau cut in. "It's pouring rain outside, and you know how dangerous the roads can be at this time of night. At least give the rain some time to clear up first. We can think about arranging transportation once the weather improves."
Adam crossed his arms and scowled. He'd rather not wait at all. Hell, he'd ride on horseback the entire way back to the castle if he could. But reluctantly, he saw his valet's point. It would do no good to leave now, and risk tiring out his horse or catching a cold from the rain. He would simply have to wait for this storm to pass and hope Belle's condition wouldn't worsen in the meantime.
"Very well," he declared. "But I intend to leave as soon as the rain stops. I don't care if you accompany me or not."
"Understood, sire." Chapeau nodded vigorously, as though he would do anything not to disappoint him.
The rain continued to fall until after midnight. Once it cleared, Chapeau arranged for a carriage to take his master back to the Château de la Rose. Though he tried to stay awake, Adam dozed off several times during the five-hour return trip. His sleep was far from restful. Several times, he'd awaken from a disturbing nightmare about Belle dying or getting into a horrific accident, and the servants holding him responsible. That only added to his anxiety, preventing him from getting any more sleep for the rest of the journey.
It was a little after six o'clock when the Château de la Rose finally appeared through the carriage window. Since they'd returned so soon, Adam almost feared that he was still dreaming. He wasn't even sure if Agathon's warning was real or a vision, rooted in his guilt over lying to Belle. A glance at the vial in his jacket pocket told him it wasn't, but he still felt uncertain.
Once they arrived at the front steps of the castle, Adam dismounted the carriage and dashed through the main doors, determined not to waste a minute finding Belle. However, his plan was soon thwarted as he nearly collided with Chip Potts in the atrium.
"Master?!" the boy said, looking up at the Prince in alarm.
Adam took a step back, mirroring Chip's startled expression. He'd been avoiding the lad for some time now—not because he disliked him, but because he had recently turned thirteen, the same age he was when his life had changed for the worse. Even now, as he looked at the boy, Adam had to remind himself that Chip wasn't him. He was a thriving young stablekeeper, who lived a healthy childhood with two parents who adored him. His upbringing would never be the same as his own. All because he had found a way to undo the curse without Belle's help.
"Chip," he said urgently. "Where is Belle?"
"Belle?" Chip's eyes widened. "Well, she—"
"Listen, I know she's ill, and I know she's staying here as a patient," he added. "Just take me to her. Please."
Chip knew better than to defy an order from the Master. He nodded and led him down to the servants' quarters.
Adam's heart stopped the moment he saw Belle's sickly appearance through the open doorway. Even from this distance, she looked pale as death, and her brow was glistening with sweat. He immediately thought back to the last time he'd seen her like this and how she had passed away shortly after. But this won't be like the last time, he told himself. He had Agathon's potion with him, and his assurance that Belle was going to get better. This wouldn't be the end for her. Not now.
Entering the room, he handed his hat to an alarmed Mrs. Potts, who had likely just stepped in to check on the girl. He reminded himself to thank her for looking after her later.
As he approached the bed, Belle slowly turned to him with weary, half-opened eyes. "Adam?" she called out to him.
"Yes, Belle. It's me."
"I... had a dream about you," she said groggily. "You saved me from a pack of wolves in the forest. And then from a life on the streets, and some bandits. Are you still that same man?"
Adam nodded while trying to ignore the painful lump growing in his throat. Agathon was right. She really is remembering everything.
Belle smiled at him weakly. "I don't want to fall asleep," she admitted in a soft, child-like voice. "I'm afraid when I wake up, you'll be gone again, and this will all be another dream. You're always leaving me."
"I'm not leaving this time," he vowed. "I'm staying here until you get better."
"Do you promise?" she asked.
She extended her hand to him. Adam used the moment to press the potion into her palm and wrap her fingers around it. "I need you to drink this for me," he directed. "It will help."
Belle nodded obediently as he uncorked the vial and helped her bring it to her lips. She swallowed the contents like a dog dying of thirst, then closed her eyes and fell away into a peaceful sleep. A throng of servants—including Lumière, Plumette, and Cogsworth—gathered outside the door to observe this occurrence, but Adam barely noticed. So long as Belle was in his care, he would do everything in his power to make her well again.
I realize this is not my best chapter writing-wise, and I apologize for that. February was a stressful month for me, and the sudden death of my grandfather (who's been a part of my life since forever) was the cherry on top of it. But I hope to be back to a writing mood again soon so I can wrap this story up. I estimate I have two or three more chapters left. Thank you all for your patience and kind reviews!
When Belle awoke again, it took her a moment to process where she was and how she'd gotten there. She suspected she was in a room in the castle, only it was a room she didn't recognize, with plain wooden furniture, faded wallpaper and crumbling plaster. The room's quaint appearance led her to believe she was in the servants' quarters. But her memories of being here were fuzzy at best.
Carefully, she sat up from her pillows; a gesture that took more effort than usual because of how sore and tired her muscles felt. But while her body wasn't back to normal yet, her head was no longer hurting, and her mind felt clear—at least, clearer than what it was prior to her encounter with Mrs. Potts. Between then and now, her most distinctive memory was of Adam coming to see her. He'd persuaded her to drink something in a voice so urgent; she'd had no choice but to comply. Soon after, she'd drifted away into a deep sleep, though his warm and comforting presence never left her side.
As she looked to the sunshine streaming from the window on her right, Belle let out a startled gasp. Adam was still here. He was sitting in a chair beside her bed, sound asleep with his arms folded over his chest. His reddish-blonde hair—which looked closer to bronze in the sunlight—had fallen out of its queue. Belle couldn't help but smile at the sight. He looked a bit like the Beast when he wore his hair down like that.
She remembered it all now like a novel she had reread countless times: living in the castle as the Beast's prisoner, receiving a Shakespeare anthology from an unlikely acquaintance, working as a prostitute to support herself while cursing the circumstances that had caused her to become one in the first place. Following that, an incredible journey to an enchanted forest, with a man she'd first dismissed as a coward, but now knew to be much more than that.
Logically, Belle had no evidence to prove that any of these visions were real. They existed only in her mind; dreams spurred by sickness, insanity or sorcery. But it had all felt so vivid, so profound, so poignant, her heart told her they must be true.
Adam had been with her in all these alternative realities. In each of them, he'd made incredible sacrifices, treated her with respect and loved her unconditionally. Just remembering these things caused her heart to swell with unspeakable longing and affection. Perhaps he might still be in love her if she had all her facts straight. Why else would he tell her about that servant girl and no one else? She'd bet her entire book collection that she was the one he'd been thinking about for all this time.
She didn't have to wait long to confirm her suspicions, as Adam suddenly yawned and reached up to scratch his nose. Moments later, his eyes opened, then widened as he registered that Belle was awake. He sat up in his chair to address her.
"Hello," she greeted shyly. It occurred to her that it was improper to be alone with a man in nothing but a borrowed nightshift. But he had seen her in a state of undress before and had kept his distance then. For this reason, she didn't mind easing the formalities between them again.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, brows raised with concern.
"Better," she answered. "Though I must have been asleep for a long time if you've returned from Comblenoir already."
"Not really." He shook his head. "When I heard you'd fallen ill, I cancelled my trip and headed straight back to the castle. That was on Wednesday. Today's Friday. I've been here for a little over two days."
Belle's eyes grew wide. She was amazed to know that Adam had postponed his trip for her, much less heard about her illness while he was away. "How did you find out?" she questioned. "Did the servants send you a letter?"
"No." His gaze lowered. "Someone came to tell me what happened. Only... they weren't from the castle."
She bit her lip, trying to make sense of this. "Was it Agathe?" It felt strange saying her name out loud, but she needed to see what Adam remembered. Had he experienced those visions of the past as intensely as she had? Or was this a reality where only she remembered those other timelines, while Adam remained oblivious? She would be crushed if this were the case, but she had to know the truth.
"Agathon," he corrected after a moment's pause. "He told me your memories were coming back, and they were making you ill. I felt responsible, so he gave me an antidote to speed up your recovery. I returned to the castle to give it to you."
Belle could hardly believe her own ears. Her mouth dropped open, then curled up into an ecstatic smile. "So then, you do remember!"
"Of course I do," he affirmed. "I never forgot."
His solemn tone of voice made her suspect he had more to say on the subject. Tentatively, she asked, "Then... you found the Nexus Tree in Brocéliande?"
"And it brought you here?"
He nodded again.
"So then, how long has it been since you ended up in this reality?"
He hesitated before saying, "Five years."
"Five years?!" Belle nearly jumped out of her bed in shock. He had known! From the day she'd first set foot in his bureau, he'd known who she was but never said anything. Angered by this revelation, she added, "We've been friends for weeks, and you never thought to tell me about our history together? What on Earth is wrong with you?"
"Belle, I'm sorry." He bowed his head like a badly behaved child who'd just received a scolding. "I meant to explain it to you... eventually. But I didn't think you'd believe me. And I didn't want our past relationship to ruin your future."
"My future?" She blinked at him, flabbergasted. "What gives you the right to decide how I should live my life? And how can I make an informed decision about anything if I don't have all the facts? My choices are mine to make, Adam, not yours!"
"Of course they are, but you're not listening!" he shot back. "It's true I got to decide how your life would play out when I found the Nexus Tree. But I chose the outcome that would be best for you. One that would give you back the freedom I stole from you, the moment I agreed to make you my prisoner. That's all I've wanted for you. It's what I still want, even now that you know the truth."
"I don't understand." Belle frowned. "Are you saying that the tree let you decide what reality you wanted to stay in?"
"Not exactly." He heaved a sigh, then moved to the edge of her mattress to tell her his story in detail. After using the tree to undo the timeline where Gaston became king, Agathe had decided to reward Adam's candour by granting him whatever his heart desired. Adam had almost wished to be with Belle again but knew that wouldn't be fair after all the pain he'd inflicted on her because of his selfishness. Even in their last timeline, where Belle had reciprocated his feelings, he'd doubted her love could have lasted or endured outside of that universe. Instead, he'd wished for a reality where she and the servants would be free of his curse. He'd also wished for her to live a happy and fulfilling life, where she would find love in her own time. It hurt Belle to hear him admit these things, but she let him continue his story uninterrupted, wanting to understand all the choices that had led them to this moment.
"I never intended to become human again, but Agathe thought I deserved another chance," he confided. "She sent me back five years in time, just moments before she placed the curse on me. I knew I wanted to see you again, but I couldn't break my promise, even as a prince. So I've spent the last five years trying to put you behind me while striving to improve my kingdom. I thought I was doing you a service until you walked into my bureau last June. Lumière sensed there was an attraction between us, so he sent you that party invitation behind my back and well... one thing led to the next." He looked up at her, his eyes glistening with regret. "I'm sorry, Belle. I never meant for it to get this far. I never meant to deceive you or make you feel like I was toying with your affections. I just… missed you and thought if we were meant to cross paths again, I could at least leave you with some better memories of me. Everything else was beyond my control."
Belle felt her own eyes begin to fill with tears. She was deeply moved to know that Adam had made that sacrifice for her, one he'd intended to keep a secret for the rest of his life. But it still didn't excuse all the grief and confusion he'd caused her in the process.
"Do you know what I've been doing for the past five years, Adam?" she told him sharply. "I've been moving from one town to the next, with nothing but my father and books for company. All I've wanted is for someone to understand me and see me as more than the village 'funny girl.' You were the first person to do that. You took an interest in me and valued my opinions, even if you didn't always agree with them. Not only that, but you let me be a part of your life, while barely expecting anything in return. Why should we throw away our chances to be together just because there might be something out there that's better for me? We could spend our whole lives regretting we never took that risk when we still could. Then what?"
Adam let out another sigh. "It's not that I don't want us to be together, Belle. It's just..." He paused. "It's more complicated than that."
His fingers clenched into fists at his knees. "I'm a broken man. I may be better than who I was before, but I'm still not perfect. There are so many parts of my past that I haven't come to terms with. I know I don't always make the right decisions when I'm sad or angry or scared. Just last Wednesday, when I considered the thought of leaving you to marry the Duke's niece, I was ready to turn to drink before Agathon intervened. How can I take care of you, if I still don't know how to take care of myself? The last thing I want is to hurt you again after everything I've put you through."
Belle shook her head, unable to believe his words. "The only way you could hurt me is if you said you hated me and never wanted to see me again," she insisted. "And I don't think for a second that you're 'broken.' Quite the opposite, in fact. In every reality we lived in, I saw a man who tried time and time again to be a better person. A man who sacrificed his humanity to save his kingdom. A man who put aside his responsibilities to help me find my father, even with an army of soldiers pursuing him for treason. That's the man I learned to love, flaws and all. So why do you still feel the need to hold yourself to impossible standards?"
"Because all my life, I was taught to believe that I wasn't good enough," he admitted, staring down at his hands. "My father used to tell me that one weak link could break the strongest chain. If I made one wrong move or said one wrong thing, it could destroy my family's reputation forever. Even now, I'm still looking over my back, afraid that his ghost or Agathe might come back to punish me for a stupid mistake I made. I know I'm being paranoid, but it's so hard to let go of a mentality I've held for so long. And it makes me so tired, Belle." His shoulders slumped forward in defeat. "I'm afraid of disappointing you, which is why I've spent all this time on my own. I've tried to move on, but the past keeps holding me back."
"Sometimes, perfection can wear us down more than it can build us up," Belle said in sympathy. "But I think I know of a solution that can help."
"And what's that?"
"That we learn to fight your demons, together. Because whether you accept it or not, you deserve to be loved. And I know I could never return to a simple life of inventing and reading books after finding a home here with you. I love you, Adam." Her voice broke from the sheer emotion of saying these words. "Those memories… everything we've been through in those other timelines, they've only strengthened what I now know to be true. By your side is where I belong and where I'd stay, if you'd only let me in again."
Adam stared at Belle incredulously, before a tentative smile appeared on his face. It was such a subtle expression, but it still didn't fail to fill her stomach with butterflies. She wondered if he had any idea how irresistible he looked when he smiled like that.
Slowly, she reached up to place her hand on his elbow. They continued to lock eyes before he followed her lead and tilted his face to hers.
Her heart raced in anticipation. This was the moment! She had him in her grasp like a fish on a line, and this time, she would not let him slip away from her.
Their faces were only inches away when he stopped abruptly; either from nerves or wanting her permission to proceed. But before he could open his mouth to speak, she broke the remaining distance and impatiently pressed her lips to his.
A surge of electricity coursed through her veins. What seemed like an impossible dream a week ago was now a moment she'd long been waiting for. She wrapped her arms tightly around his back, while he cupped her cheek and drew her in closer. Gradually, their kiss deepened. Belle opened her mouth, aching to feel the warmth of his tongue and the gentle brush of his teeth against her lips. Fate had bound them together time and time again, and now she wanted to spend an eternity memorizing every part of him, basking in the intoxicating feeling of loving him and receiving his love in return...
If not for an unexpected knock at the door, she may have received her wish. Adam pulled away sharply, giving her just enough time to see Docteur Pomme standing in the doorway with his hands clasped in front of him.
Belle rolled her eyes in annoyance. If she wasn't too sick to leave her bed, she might have murdered the man for his ill-timed appearance.
"Erm, pardon the intrusion, Master," the physician said awkwardly. No sooner had he uttered this, than Sultan sprinted into the room, nearly barreling him over in the process. Docteur Pomme let out a surprised shout, but regained his balance just in time. He waited for the Prince to call the dog over to him before continuing, "I've… Well, I've just come by to give Mademoiselle Gagnier her medicine and check up on how she's doing."
Adam's face turned as red as his hair. He looked from her to Sultan, who was wagging his tail vigorously, before saying, "Very well. Cogsworth wants a word with me anyway. I shouldn't keep him waiting."
Belle stared at him in surprise. "You're just going to leave me here?"
"Of course not, ma chère." He flashed her an apologetic grin. "I'll only be gone for a little while, to check on some things while Docteur Pomme tends to you. I'll be back sooner than you know." As confirmation that he would keep his promise, he kissed her on the cheek. "Sultan"—he turned to his dog and propped him up on the mattress so he could be closer to Belle—"keep Belle company for me, won't you?"
Sultan barked affirmatively, then nuzzled his nose against Belle's face in his own gesture of affection. Belle laughed at the sensation, then reached out to take him in her arms—a somewhat challenging feat, as Sultan was not a small dog.
She was unable to take her eyes off Adam as he stood up and left the room. It pained her to see him go so soon, but considering how long he'd been sitting with her and monitoring her recovery, she couldn't blame him for needing time to stretch his legs and convene with the staff. As he walked through the door, he put his fingers to his lips, which brought a faint but uncontrollable smile to her face.
True to his word, Adam eventually returned to Belle. He spent the next few days in her room, keeping her company while she recovered from her illness. As was her nature, she wasted no time bombarding him with questions about the specifics of Agathe's bargain and what he'd been doing for the past five years. Initially, Adam had been uncomfortable revealing the parts of his past he'd never planned to share with her. But if he was going to make amends, telling the truth was the best way to start. As it turned out, being open with her did as much good for him as it did for her. The more he shared, the more it felt like a tremendous weight was being lifted from his chest. It felt good to smile at her and hold her hand with no fear of overstepping his boundaries or being too upfront about his feelings. Whenever he met her glistening brown eyes, he knew she felt the same about him.
During these conversations, she often wondered if it was worth telling the servants about their former existence as enchanted objects. Adam strongly opposed the idea. The staff had been unaware of that traumatic reality for so long; they'd surely gain nothing by learning about it now. And as for the suddenness of their relationship, many of the servants already suspected that Belle and the Master had fancied each other since the first day they'd met. Knowing this, neither of them had any qualms about maintaining the charade, or pretending that Belle's illness was what had finally prompted Adam to come to terms with his feelings.
When no one else was in the room, the two of them would steal more kisses from each other, which would grow increasingly more heated as time passed. Belle—who was still quite new to intimacy—seemed eager to take things to the next level. Adam shared in her enthusiasm to a certain extent, but still preferred to practice discretion, especially when someone could walk in on them at any moment. There was another reason he wasn't ready to go beyond kissing, besides the fact that she wasn't back to full health yet, but he wasn't sure when would be the best time to address it.
He had other matters to worry about in the meantime. When he wasn't spending time alone with Belle, he was working with LePlume to compose a letter to the Duke de Pontavice, expressing his apologies for abandoning their business meeting. With his secretary's help, Adam was able to compose a letter that sounded both sincere and professional. But even so, he feared that the damage had already been done. He likely wouldn't hear from the Duke in a long time, or at least until another suitor snatched up his niece. Not that he regretted his choice to back out of the arrangement. He'd only been together with Belle for a few days and wondered how he could have ever convinced himself to marry a woman he didn't love... again. Belle was the only one for him, and he didn't give a damn what tradition said. Lumière, Vincent and Oncle Christophe had all been right about him in that regard.
His second matter of business was to talk with Maurice, who'd been staying in the castle as a guest since Belle's illness. Adam had run into the artisan several times while entering and exiting Belle's room but had yet to speak with him personally. He was determined to correct that, especially if he and Belle were going to start an official courtship soon.
As he approached Maurice's guest room on Sunday, Adam could feel his palms begin to grow sweaty from nerves. He'd put on one of his best mint green outfits for the occasion since according to Chapeau, the colour made him look more approachable. But even so, he was afraid that Maurice would see straight through the façade or find some reason to find fault with him the way his own father would. While he may have earned Maurice's trust in another reality, the pessimist in him was still inclined to prepare for the worst.
Thankfully, he had little to worry about. Once Adam introduced himself, Maurice went on a lengthy anecdote about his occupation as a painter and years raising Belle as a single parent. This story then segued into an account of his daughter's strange demeanour the day before she'd become sick, and how she'd somehow remembered her mother's death, even though he'd never told her explicitly. Her behaviour had left Maurice extremely shaken, to the point he couldn't sleep that night.
"I knew it was selfish of me to keep the truth from her for so long," he admitted. "But she must have already known about it to describe it with that level of detail. Maybe she'd always remembered, or she found some letters I used to send to her aunt when she was a child? I'd tried to hide the evidence as best I could, but she was always such an inquisitive thing—it's possible she found them in my workshop and never told me. She never mentioned Colette to you, did she?"
"Only once," Adam answered while trying to hide his guilt in knowing exactly why Belle had remembered her mother's death. "She said she'd died in Paris when she was a baby but didn't give a reason. That's about it."
Maurice slumped his shoulders despondently. "She must think I'm a coward for not telling her the truth. I know I need to make things right; I just don't know where to start. What if she thinks less of me for letting her mother die alone from that horrible disease? Her health had deteriorated so quickly… all I could think about was our little girl's safety. I took her and whatever valuables I could carry and fled Paris without looking back. Not a day goes by that I'm not haunted by that decision, and what I could have done differently. I just… I wish I'd had more time."
Adam nodded in understanding. In his mind, he couldn't help but marvel at how different Maurice was from his own father, who had shown no remorse when his wife had died. To him, grief was a weakness; something to be repressed at all costs. It was no wonder why Belle had grown up to be so compassionate, while Adam had grown up to be such a beast.
"You can't blame yourself for what happened to your wife, monsieur," he said, wanting to assure the gentleman he had no ill feelings about his decision. "Any man in your situation would have done the same thing to protect his family. And if there's one thing I know about Belle, it's that she has this wonderful ability to forgive people despite their shortcomings. Sometimes, when the rain was really bad in the afternoons, I'd ask if she'd like to stay at the castle for the night, to save her the trouble of travelling back to Villeneuve. She always refused because she didn't want to leave you alone, even for a day. If her love for you is that strong, then I know she'll understand your reasons for keeping your wife's death a secret. No matter what happens, she'll always see you as her father."
Having taken out his handkerchief, Maurice sniffled and wiped a tear away from his eye. "Thank you, Your Highness. I needed to hear that. But I can't exactly take all the credit for being the most important person in Belle's life anymore. Another special man has caught her eye recently. And considering how highly she's spoken of you; I suppose it was only a matter of time."
Adam's cheeks flushed. "I can assure you, monsieur, that my intentions with your daughter are strictly honourable," he persisted. "I care for her a great deal, but if she feels she's not ready for a relationship yet, I won't try to pressure her. I know the two of you intended to start a business together in a new town, where she was hoping to pursue her dreams of adventure. I don't intend to impede on them just because of the way I feel about her."
"Oh, come on, Your Highness," Maurice chided with a smile. "There's no need to be so modest on my account. After all this excitement, I think it's safe to say that Belle and I will be staying in Villeneuve for a while yet. And believe me, I am thrilled to see her enter this new stage in her life. Growing up, she was always so absorbed in her books, I often worried she wouldn't have anyone to look out for her when I died. But after meeting you and all your staff members, I think it's safe to say she's finally found a place where she belongs. I'm grateful to all of you for making her feel at home here this past month."
"It was our pleasure." Adam nodded. "Belle is an amazing woman who came into our lives at the best time possible. But are you certain you approve of us? I mean, it must have come as a shock to hear about your daughter entering a romance with a prince."
"Just a little," Maurice admitted with a shrug. "But then again, it's not up to me to tell my daughter who to love, or who to spend the rest of her life with. She's old enough now, and strong enough in her convictions to make her own decisions. Besides, if all she wanted was to be with the first man who'd have her, she would have married our village hero a long time ago. When it comes to romance, Belle doesn't play with fire. She puts instinct above reason, just like her mother did. So if you're the one she's chosen to start her first relationship with, then I'll stand by her decision. Just treat her well. That's all I ask."
"Absolutely, monsieur." Considering all the ways he'd hurt Belle and her father in the past, Adam intended to do just that. He was determined not to repeat his mistakes, especially when he no longer had the magic book to consult if things turned sour.
A few days later, Adam sat in the castle colonnade wearing a pale blue suit and cutting away at the thorns of one of his mother's white roses. The balmy August air held only the slightest chill, while some of the garden's prized annuals had already begun to wilt. It was all a subtle reminder that fall would soon be upon them. Nevertheless, Adam would take the changing of seasons to a purgatory of endless winters any day.
From across the lawn, Belle walked hand-in-hand with her father, dressed in a white robe à l'anglaise embroidered with coral-coloured flowers. Her appearance left Adam breathless with anticipation. Earlier that week, he'd asked Madame de Garderobe to fashion a new dress for Belle as an apology gift from him, and as a celebration of their new relationship. He knew she didn't like to wear pretty things—princess things especially, but he was glad she'd consented to put it on for him just this once.
As the pair drew closer, Adam heard Belle make some exasperated remarks to her father about how she still knew how to walk, even though she'd been bedridden for a week. The comment made Adam snicker to himself. She hadn't even been out of bed for a day and was already fighting to get her independence back. Typical Belle.
Upon reaching the colonnade, Belle and Maurice smiled at the Prince brightly, as though Belle's earlier outburst had never occurred. Adam stood up to meet them, shaking hands with the artisan before taking his daughter by the hand and leading her to the bench. They both waved goodbye to Maurice, who had brought some art supplies with him to do some sketches of the gardens. Then, the two of them were left alone to talk.
"This is for you," Adam began, holding out the rose he'd dethorned for her earlier. He felt a little sheepish, giving her something her father must have gifted her on dozens of occasions, but she accepted it from him all the same.
"Thank you." She sniffed the flower before tucking it behind her ear. The Prince couldn't help but smile at the gesture. Belle was so surprising and unconventional, and he loved her all the more for it.
"So what's this all about?" she questioned, turning her gaze back to him. "Did you bring me out to the colonnade to tell me I was right and Miranda loves Ferdinand genuinely, and not because he's the first young man she's ever laid eyes on?"
He chuckled. "No. Though I'd be happy to discuss with you later why I disagree with that statement."
"Spoilsport," she gently teased. "So, if we're not here to talk about Shakespeare, what did you bring me here for?"
Echoing her playful tone, he replied, "Why, I wanted to celebrate your recovery by taking you out to enjoy the nice weather, of course!" He gestured to their surroundings and the blue sky above them before clearing his throat. "And... since we're officially a couple now, I think it's only fair I discuss some conditions I have for maintaining our relationship." He cringed, hating how rigid that sounded. But as he'd learned from Lumière, if he intended to take his relationship with Belle seriously, voicing his expectations was the best way to start.
"What are these conditions?" Belle asked, raising a brow curiously.
"First, I've decided to talk to your father about commissioning some new paintings for the castle," he proclaimed. "I'm tired of looking at my family's depressing portraits all day and think it's high time I redecorated. Also, Webster is looking for an apprentice to help him rearrange the remaining books in the library. He was extremely impressed by all the work you did during his leave and would love to give you some additional training if you were interested."
Belle's eyes widened with surprise. "Webster wants me to be his apprentice?"
"Of course! He can't think of anyone else who would be more capable, and Cogsworth and I whole-heartedly agree. That said, if you and your father would like to move into my castle as permanent residents during your employment, I'd be happy to oblige. I could easily set you up in the East Wing; either in your old room or somewhere else, if you'd prefer. That's just an offer though. I wouldn't expect you to stay here forever… not like before." He rubbed the back of his neck, wondering if he was being too forward in asking Belle to move in with him so soon. He knew she liked her freedom and didn't want to infringe on it by asking her to leave her old life behind so suddenly.
Belle pursed her lips in thought. "I'll talk to Papa about it," she conceded. "It would be nice not to travel between home and work all the time. And... I'd get to be closer to you." She smiled at him affectionately. "But there are some things my father may be unwilling to part with if we just packed up and moved. I wouldn't want to see him unhappy at my expense."
"I understand," Adam responded, warmly touched by her selflessness. "Talk it over with your father first and then come back to me when you've made a decision."
"I will," she promised.
He took a deep breath before continuing, "Next, my cousin Vincent is getting married at the end of this month. I wrote him a letter recently, telling him about us, and I think it's safe to assume my whole family would be interested in meeting you. My uncle and cousins will all be attending the wedding, so it would be the perfect opportunity for you to make their acquaintance. That said... would you be willing to come along with me to Claircomble as my, erm... personal guest, when the time comes?"
"It depends." Belle tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Does the rest of your family know I'm a peasant?"
"They do," he affirmed. "But I think you'll find my mother's side of the family is more accepting of inter-class relationships than most. If you were to meet my father's side on the other hand—which thank goodness you never will—it would be a completely different story."
"I see." She bit her lip. "Would I have to dress up for your cousin's wedding?"
"Yes," he answered with a wry grin. "That's how it works I'm afraid. But I'm sure Madame de Garderobe would be happy to design something practical and fashionable for you if that's your preference. She's done a good job of it before, as you well know." He gestured to her current outfit to make his point.
Belle looked down at her elegant floral dress and nodded in agreement. "I suppose I can do that, then. I mean, it's a bit exciting, isn't it? Attending a royal wedding as a guest?"
"Not as exciting as your fairy tales make them out to be, I'm afraid. There's a lot of pomp and circumstance, and way too much Latin for my brain to keep up with. Still"—he turned back to her and smiled—"it would mean a lot to me if you came."
She returned his smile, reaching out to entwine her hands in his. "What other conditions do you have for me?"
Adam gulped, needing a moment to gather his thoughts before sharing his last request. This was where the conversation could get especially complicated. "Well, erm… I'm sure you're aware of what courtships are, and where they often lead," he began. "So, I was wondering if…"
"Yes?" She looked at him expectantly.
He shook his head, willing himself to start again. "Belle, when Agathe sent me back in time... I thought I'd never see you again. I've spent every day since we parted living with your memory, and the morals you instilled in me when I was a beast. All those improvements I made to the kingdom, those people I found homes and jobs for, I did because of you. Because you inspired me to use my influence to be kind to others. But even so, I never felt complete until the day you came back into my life. I love you, Belle." He stared at her earnestly. "I always have, no matter who you were, no matter which timeline I stumbled into. And I wanted to ask you if..."
She leaned closer to him, hanging on his every word. "Ask me what?" she whispered.
He cleared his throat again. "Would you ever think about… marrying me? Not today, I mean. Not even in a year, or two years. But is it something you might consider?" He had to take several deep breaths through his nose as he spoke. He hadn't felt this short of breath since the evening he'd asked her if it were possible to earn her affections as a beast.
Thankfully, he didn't have to wait long for her answer. The radiant smile on her face told him everything he needed to know. "I would."
He nearly fell off the bench from shock. "Really?!"
"What?" She smirked. "You expected me to say no?"
"Well, yes actually. I mean, no! I mean…" He cleared his throat again. "You seemed revolted by the idea of marriage when you told me about Gaston. And after you mentioned your plan to become a nun and travel to New France for missionary work, I wasn't sure how you'd react if I asked for your hand. I knew I wanted to ask, but I didn't know how you'd feel about it."
Belle looked away from the Prince and laughed. "I was imagining a worst-case scenario if my father died and I had no other means of providing for myself," she clarified. "And just because I rejected Gaston doesn't mean I'm rejecting marriage altogether. Since I was a child, I knew that if I married, I wanted to be with someone I was deeply in love with. Someone I could call my soulmate. Maybe, after I've spent more time with you—the real you, I'll be able to make a clearer decision on whether I'm ready to be your wife or not."
At this admission, Adam's face broke into a tentative smile. "I'm so happy to hear that, Belle. And I swear I will do everything I can to meet your expectations during our courtship."
He ran his thumb over the top of her hand. "Though I suppose if we're going to be... hypothetically married one day, it's only fair that I warn you I lead a complicated life. Every day, I have to write letters to foreign kingdoms, meet with subjects and business partners, and deliver speeches to some organization or another. And while I would never ask you to change for me, there will be certain protocols you'll need to follow when we're in public. There are a lot of things you'll have to learn, and I can't guarantee every day will be full of far-off places, magic spells, or daring sword fights..."
"I don't want far-off places, magic spells, or daring sword fights," Belle said with a shake of her head. "I just want you." She reached up to clutch his cheek. "If that means I have to learn to act a certain way and wear some pompous clothes to impress your family and convince the Emperor to make public education accessible to boys and girls, so be it."
It was Adam's turn to laugh. Given all his fears about how this conversation would turn out, her optimistic response was the best thing he could have heard. Overcome with relief and gratitude, he leaned in to kiss her. Belle quickly responded, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pulling him in close. And as they sat in their passionate embrace, Adam thought not only of the years he'd spent alone, believing this moment would never come to pass, but of the future. For this was no longer a goodbye. This was a new beginning for him and Belle; one where they could learn and grow together for as long as they wanted, and he could keep clinging to her as tightly as he did now.
Armed with this knowledge, he kissed her slowly and tenderly, as though they had all the time in the world.
Seven years later...
"You're sure this is the one you want?"
With an affirmative nod, Adam plucked the rose from the bush, then cut away the thorns with the clippers he'd brought with him. Benjamin stood beside him, fidgeting restlessly, but otherwise waiting patiently for him to finish his work.
Once he'd finished, Adam passed the rose down to the boy. "Be careful now," he warned. "Roses are very fragile. You need to handle them gently or else all the petals will fall off. Do you think you can do that?"
"Yes, Papa," Benjamin promised. And although he was only five years old, the bold conviction in his voice told Adam that he would keep his word.
Taking his free hand, Adam guided his son across the gardens, back towards the Château de la Rose. The sky was painted in dazzling shades of pink and orange—a sure sign that tomorrow would be just as sunny as it had been today. As he took in the breathtaking sight, Adam couldn't help but reflect on how much his life had changed in the past decade.
Nearly seven years had passed since he'd first asked Belle to move in with him. Six since she'd finally accepted his marriage proposal. And five since he'd become a father to their firstborn son, Prince Benjamin-Hugo Michel de Bauffremont.
Initially, Adam had been nervous about becoming a father. His only example of one had been cruel and unloving, leaving him with the fear he'd end up the same way. But Belle had reminded him every day that he was nothing like his father, and it was within his power to be the example he'd wished he'd had. She'd been his rock for their six years of marriage, and Adam knew he could do anything with her by his side. Thanks to her, the birth of their first child had easily become one of the best memories of his life—one that he wouldn't trade away for all the riches in the world.
As they reached the east entrance of the castle, Adam was startled to see his wife standing in the doorway, carrying son number two in her arms. "There you are!" she said reproachfully. "Here I was, thinking you two had taken off, and Denis and I were going to have dinner alone."
"Of course, we wouldn't 'take off,' my love," Adam said with an apologetic grin. "Benjamin just wanted to get you a little something from the gardens before we ate."
"Maman, this is for you," Benjamin said, holding out the rose he had chosen for her.
Belle raised a brow and passed Denis over to Adam so she could take the flower from her older son. Denis bore many physical similarities to his brother, including his light brown hair and fair complexion that freckled easily in the sun. But unlike Benjamin, Denis's blue eyes had turned brown after a year, and now, at the age of two, had become just as dark and expressive as his mother's.
"Thank you, Benjamin," Belle said with a smile. "That's very sweet of you."
Benjamin beamed proudly. "Papa helped," he explained. "He took off the sharp bits so you wouldn't get hurt."
"Did he now?" Belle gave her husband an inquisitive look.
"Of course!" Adam confirmed. "He only wanted the best for his Maman, and I was more than happy to assist."
"I see. Well, Benjamin, did you remember to say thank you to your father for helping you?"
"Thank you, Papa!" Benjamin squealed. He ran over to his father and hugged his knees tightly, which elicited a smile from both his parents.
The family ate dinner together in the dining room that evening, indulging in Chef Cuisiner's delicious lamb chops and dauphinoise potatoes. It was a little unconventional for the King and Queen to eat dinner together with their sons, especially in a society where most noble families rarely interacted, let alone saw their children until they came of age. But Belle was adamant that they play an active role in their boys' upbringings, and Adam, who agreed with his wife on everything when it came to family, had no reason to refuse. While squeezing in family time could be difficult with a kingdom to manage, they always tried to put aside at least one day a week to spend with their children, free of any pressing commitments or interruptions.
After dinner, the four of them moved to the library for story time. Tonight's tale was The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, written by an Englishman named J. Roberts. Belle and Adam had read the book so many times, they practically had it memorized. Together, they took turns recounting the tale to their sons, who laughed uncontrollably as their father acted out the Giant's lines in a deep, rumbly voice. Somehow, story time then turned into an improvisation game where the boys chased their father around the library, pretending he was the Giant and they were arresting him for stealing Jack's magic goose. But with Belle acting as their advisor, they decided to let him go on the condition that he returned the goose to Jack, along with all the other stolen valuables in his castle. Adam was in no place to defy a pair of fierce young princes, so he agreed to their conditions, all while staying in character.
He'd never had such a life growing up, full of play, imagination, and laughter. Maybe when he was with his mother, or when his uncle and cousins used to visit. But these moments became less frequent as he grew older. As a father, Adam was determined to see his sons' childhoods filled with all the love and happiness he'd never known.
Once story time was over, Adam and Belle escorted their boys upstairs to prepare them for bed. In their shared bedchamber, they helped the young princes into their nightgowns and tucked them into their beds for the night. Denis insisted he wasn't tired, so Belle sang him a lullaby her father had taught her when she was a girl. Her voice, while untrained, was pleasant enough to put their younger son to sleep within minutes.
Meanwhile, Adam kissed Benjamin on his forehead and told him how proud he was of his good behaviour today.
Having put both of their children to bed, Belle and Adam closed their bedroom doors and retired to the West Wing for the night.
If they were an ordinary couple, this might have been the time of day when they'd take the rest of the night for themselves. But as the King and Queen of an ever-demanding kingdom, there was always work to be done. Tonight, Belle was the busier one of the two, frantically going through some papers for her upcoming appraisal of the co-educational schools in the region. Public education had come a long way since her coronation, and with some considerable arm twisting, the Emperor of France had finally approved her request to build some co-educational institutes around the kingdom, with the intent of examining their quality of learning compared to traditional segregated schools. To help run this experiment, Belle had assembled a committee of educators, academics and stakeholders just as interested in improving learning opportunities for girls as she was. As the self-appointed chairwoman of this committee, her job (among many things) was to facilitate committee meetings, oversee funding and pay annual visits to the schools to speak with students and teachers. It was a taxing job, but a rewarding one, and Belle put her heart and soul into it. For Adam, who had long since left the committee in his wife's capable hands, he was pleased to see her dream of achieving equal education rights for girls slowly become a reality.
"Maybe you should take a break," he told her as he walked up to the desk where she was sorting through her documents. "Making yourself crazy from all this won't help."
"I know," she admitted with a sigh. "I just… really want to make a good impression on the students this week. They try so hard to make themselves presentable when I arrive; it's only right I do the same for them. Even though I'm their queen, I don't want them to think this is a cursory job, or that I don't care about them and their ways of living. Does that make sense?"
He nodded. "It does. You've always put the considerations of others before yourself, Belle. It shows in both your words and actions. But I know for a fact that the students will love having you in their schools, even if you slip up on a few details. It might even encourage some of them to buckle down and start doing their work."
Belle laughed softly, but it faded as quickly as it had come. "It's not just the trip I'm nervous about," she admitted. "I'm worried about leaving Benjamin and Denis behind. It doesn't feel right when they're still so young and clingy, and always calling out for their Maman every waking moment."
"They will miss you. As will I." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "But that doesn't mean they won't be without company. Your father will be here on Thursday to spend time with them, Sarah will be around to get them ready in the mornings, and I'll still be tucking them into bed every night after my meetings. Besides, you'll only be gone for a week, not a year. It may feel like forever to them, but they can wait."
"They're getting so big now." Belle's eyes grew misty. "It seems like only yesterday when you were learning how to hold Benjamin for the first time. Remember that?"
"Do I ever." He smiled fondly. "He was so tiny; I was afraid he was going to shatter into pieces in my arms. Then, he opened his little blue eyes, looked up at me and smiled."
"He knew who you were from the moment he met you."
"Or, he just happened to be passing gas."
"Perhaps." She chuckled. "Oh, but just think. In a few more years, Benji will be big enough to ride his own horse, and we won't be able to carry him around as easily as we used to. Those days of piggyback rides and bedtime cuddles will be a thing of the past."
"We could try for another one, you know," Adam suggested casually. "Maybe this time, it'll be a girl. A little Sophie-Emmanuelle, or Jeanne-Charlotte..."
"I have considered it." But seeing the sudden twinkle in her husband's eyes, Belle smacked him in the arm with the wad of parchment she was holding and smirked. "Just not this second! When the boys are older and more independent. You know how difficult they are to handle at this age."
"Can't argue with you there." He shrugged. "Still, I'm up for the challenge. I'd be ready for another little stranger whenever you are."
"Oh, I'd bet you'd be." Her eyes flickered at him suggestively. "You redheads are up for anything. All red in the head, and fire in the bed..."
"It's blonde, not red," he admonished. Even so, his cheeks began to burn at his wife's bawdy inside joke.
"Anyway, if you want another baby, you should at least pluck up the courage to change his diapers every once in a while," she continued more seriously. "Don't you dare use Sarah as an excuse."
"Hey, you don't change Denis's diapers every day either," he pointed out. "Admit it, having a nurse to pick up the slack on our busy days isn't so bad."
"Sarah has been a great help," she conceded. "But I'm still their mother, and I'm not going to shirk on my duties just because it's convenient."
"No one thinks you're shirking," he insisted. "You're the most dedicated queen and mother I could have ever had the privilege of marrying. I'm grateful for what you do, and the boys are too."
"Thank you, Adam." Belle smiled appreciatively. "I needed to hear that. And if you start helping out more, I promise to give your suggestion about baby number three some more serious thought. Deal?"
A lull in their conversation soon followed, in which Belle reorganized some papers on her desk, and Adam stared out the windows overlooking the balcony.
"I had a dream the other day," he mentioned absently. "Only it wasn't really a dream. More like a memory within a dream."
She glanced at him in concern. "About being the Beast?" He'd had those nightmares frequently over the years, and often found them easier to cope with when he could talk to her about them in private.
"No." He shook his head. "Not this time. I was back in Brocéliande, examining the leaves on the Nexus Tree. One of them showed an image of us in the West Wing. I was the Beast, and I was lying on the floor—whether dead or unconscious, I'm not sure. You were kneeling next to my body, crying over me."
Belle's face blanched in the window's reflection, and Adam winced, wishing he'd thought of a gentler way of conveying this information. "Sorry," he said, turning back to her. "I didn't mean to bring up the past like this. It just made me wonder... If I hadn't used the book to return to the past that night, what would have happened? If I'd accepted my fate, would I have eventually died from my curse? And would you have ever come back to me?"
She was quiet for a moment. "I think I would have."
"Really?" He blinked.
"Yes. Maybe not immediately… but after everything got sorted out with my father, I think I would. My memories of returning to the village are fuzzy, but I do know that I believed what we shared that night was special. That you had become an important person in my life. I don't think I had fully considered that I was falling in love with you, but eventually, maybe..."
"It wouldn't have been in time to break the spell," he pointed out. "The last petal was hours away from falling when I freed you. Even if you came back to me, there'd be no chance of us having an ordinary life together. We wouldn't have been able to live together as husband and wife. Not to mention that it would have been impossible for me to give you children. Eventually, I would have felt like I was being too much of a burden and asked you to leave. And failing that, I would have removed myself from your life completely."
Belle's expression crumpled and Adam mentally kicked himself, realizing he'd said too much again. He was surprised therefore, when his wife crossed the room and placed her hand on his cheek. "We would have found a way," she argued. "I would have spent day and night doing research in the library, looking for a solution. We know that Agathe lived in Villeneuve during the curse. Maybe she would have been open to negotiating another way to reverse the spell if we couldn't break it on time. I would have done everything in my power to make you and the servants human again. Saving my friends and the man I love would never be a burden. You know that, right?"
"I do now," he said with a humble nod. "Though for what it's worth, I'm glad you didn't have to go through all that for me. Even though Agathe gave me another chance at redemption, I still wouldn't have trusted her to make a fair bargain with you. If she tricked you or tried to use you as collateral for breaking the spell, I would have never forgiven myself. So I'm glad that despite all the odds, fate brought us to this moment. It's all I could have dreamed of and more than I deserve."
"Always so melodramatic," Belle lightly teased. "How many times do I have to remind you that you've always deserved me, and I chose to love you of my own accord?"
"Just one more time, ma chère," he replied with a grin. "As always."
The couple kissed, then wrapped their arms around each other and watched the stars in companionable silence. Seven years ago in another universe, the Beast had stood in this very place, heartbroken and dreading the future. In a moment of haste, he'd used the Enchantress's book to escape his curse, a decision that had nearly cost him his life. But despite all the mishaps, doubts, and dead ends, he was exactly where he needed to be. He looked out at the shimmering night sky and thought of all he had to be grateful for, being here with the love of his life and his irreplaceable family, forevermore.
And that's a wrap (again!). Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this story and leave a review.
As I was finishing up this fic, I considered adding a third installment to this series, where a teenage Benjamin and Denis get tricked by an evil enchanter to turn back time and prevent their parents from meeting. But considering that AO3 has little love for OC-centric fics, and how critically panned that plot ended up being in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I think it's better I end things here. Fun fact: Both the names of Adelle's sons in this epilogue are a nod to Belle's sons in the Disney TV series Once Upon a Time (Gideon) and Descendants (Ben). Denis's name was originally going to be Gédéon—the French version of Gideon—but the thought of giving Adelle a son with the first initial as Gaston didn't sit right with me. Instead, I chose the name Denis—which is the French variant of Dion or Deon, and could be a nickname for Gideon, I guess?
This is not the most original story I've written for this fandom or the most well-written for that matter. But it has been a good distraction from a year of COVID-19 madness, which is still very rampant in my country. I would again like to thank CarolNJoy and LovelyLadyAllie for beta reading my chapters as I was completing them. And to Rachel Portman for composing her uplifting soundtrack to the 2002 film adaptation of Nicholas Nickelby, which I frequently listened to while I was working on this story.
I have a few more multi-chapter ideas for this fandom, including a Star Wars fusion fic, an AU inspired by the 1998 film The Man in the Iron Mask, and a story about the origins of the Beast's curse set in fourth century France, but no set dates for when they'll be released. But you'll know where to find me if I decide to publish anything.
Au revoir for now!