A small basket over her arm, Isabelle cut yet another stem and placed the rose within the caned container. In the distance she could hear her family about a game of Pall Mall as they relaxed on the lawn and she fully intended to join them, but she needed a few moments to herself. She was leaving St. Regis Park the next day and she had promised Sir Benjamin that before she did, she would handpick the floral arrangements to fill her father’s bedroom and office. It was a small task but one she enjoyed performing…and it gave her some time away from the constant pampering she had known from her siblings during her visit.
When she came to see her father again, it was with the highest of spirits although realizing how the remainder of her family behaved, therefore she had been shocked to find them treating her as if their lives depended on it. Her sisters were nearly ‘killing her with kindness’ as the saying went, and young Benjamin could not have been nicer and more polite, actions which were met with disbelief although she never revealed it. There were moments when she wanted to accept that her absence had made them care more, but regrettably it was difficult.
“You are not joining your family, Miss Hewitt?”
Momentarily startled, Isabelle turned at the sound, then made a polite curtsy to Sir Maxwell’s large figure, his body seemingly blocking the cobblestone path.
“Sir Maxwell. Good afternoon.”
“And a good afternoon to you as well.”
“My brother is over there.” She pointed in the direction of the laughter.
“Well…I did come to visit Benjamin…but I saw you here and felt it my duty as a friend of the family to speak to you.”
“That was kind of you, sir,” she replied, her best manners at the forefront, although she could not imagine why he had gone out of his way to do this. After all, it was not as though she had not seen him for days. He had been at the Hewitt estate on such a regular basis she felt him prepared to move in!
“You…You are not joining your family on your final day here?”
“This is something I am doing for Father – one last act before my departure. He always said the flowers smelled sweeter when they were picked by my hand. I’m sure he exaggerates, but it’s a duty I enjoy.”
“Sir Benjamin is incredibly fortunate to have three such beautiful, caring daughters.”
Isabelle did not reply, but nodded and smiled her thanks, moving slightly away from him.
“Would…Might it be a bother, Miss Hewitt, were I to accompany you during the remainder of your duty?”
“Might…? No…no of course not, Sir Maxwell.” She glanced over her shoulder. Her family – her father in particular and several of the servants – were within a stone’s throw of her location if she felt the need for support. “Although I do not have a chaperone.”
“Well…Sir Benjamin, Lady Nicole and your sisters and brothers are right over there. I feel that maintains propriety, do you not think? After all…we are all amongst friends, true?”
“True.” God forgive me – I am lying again. Trying not to tremble, Isabelle attempted to concentrate on what she had been doing, but she found it difficult, knowing he was nearby.
“It is difficult to believe you will depart tomorrow,” he softly said
“Yes…it is difficult for me to believe as well.”
“But you have made a promise…”
“And it is rare to find a person that truly wants to be so honorable. You are to be praised for that, Miss Hewitt.”
She shook her head. “It is not praise I am seeking sir. I told the Beast I would return within seven days and I shall abide by that.”
“He has not taken your feelings into consideration.”
Isabelle’s head swiftly turned to look up at him. “What do you mean, sir?”
“He grants you seven days after holding you at his castle for weeks upon end…weeks without real companionship…human companionship. How can he expect you to return to his confinement when you have been in the real world again?”
“He was good enough to let me see my father again, and for that I owe him much.”
“But you would not have been with him had he not threatened Sir Benjamin as he did. It hurts my soul to see you suffer.”
Moving again, Isabelle snipped another stem, but Winterbottom could see she was perturbed by his words, if only through the slight shaking of her hands. She hides it well he thought, mistakenly supposing that her nervousness was due to his attentions.And not just her feelings for me. That luscious little body…He quickly let his eyes take in the simple green gown. Does she have any idea what she does to me? “I wish you would not go, Miss Hewitt.”
“Your concern is kind, sir, but I shall be fine. I only worry for my father’s health once I have departed.”
“I believe Sir Benjamin shall hold up. He not only has the love of young Ben and your sisters, but the adoration of Lady Nicole, whom I understand will soon become your new mother.”
“Yes,” came Isabelle’s short reply, hoping her disgust was not revealed.
“But it would do him better to know that his youngest daughter is well-treated and safe.”
“I shall be both, I assure you.”
“You are most brave, Miss Hewitt, braver than anyone I have known in my life…but it is so unfair you must suffer.”
“You assume much, sir,” Isabelle answered, attempting to smile as she said it. “However…I appreciate your concern.”
“It is more than concern, Miss Hewitt…Miss…Isabelle. Might I call you that? Miss Isabelle. It is so much more personal, particularly since…well…perhaps I say too much.”
Isabelle tried hard not to stare, but his comment left her curious…and afraid. “How is that, Sir Maxwell?”
“I feel…I feel rather protective towards you and always have, for remember, I have watched you grow into young womanhood, and have known you to be quite noble and very dear to your father, especially after the passing of Lady Hewitt…” He grimaced, as if thinking the words presumptuous. “I apologize. The thought of your mother must still be painful to you. However, I felt it important that you realize your existence means the world to many of us…including…including myself.”
At this, Belle nearly dropped the basket.
“I wish to awaken you from this nightmare, Miss Isabelle.”
“What…What nightmare, sir?” She was honestly confused.
“The nightmare you are undergoing as the Beast’s prisoner.”
“But I am not his…”
“I have spoken to Sir Benjamin, young Benjamin as well. We all share a singular concern, feeling you have suffered enough. It is not right the creature does this to you.”
“I am not certain what you have discussed with my father, Sir Maxwell, but I do not feel it appropriate, particularly since he has said nothing to me. If you will excuse me…” She attempted to move around him, only to find his bulk obstructing her. “Sir Maxwell…please…I should join my father.”
“Of course…I do not desire to frighten you, Miss Isabelle, but…it is time I laid my heart before you.”
“Do you not realize how very dear you are to me?”
“I…No…I had…I did not know.” She nervously backed up.
“Well you are.”
“Sir?” Before realizing it, she was against a garden wall, her suitor’s enormous body blocking her view.
“We care…I care, Miss Isabelle. The thought of you returning to It is more than I or your family can comprehend.”
“You speak…I am sorry…but are you declaring you speak for my family as well?” She knew her father hated her departure, but that he would conspire (and the word made her flinch) with Winterbottom of all the men in Britain. She might have lived a semi-sheltered life, but she had not escaped some of the accounts regarding him. From what little she knew, she doubted he would make any woman a loving, devoted spouse.
“Your welfare is all-important and…now that I have you here…knowing you disappeared that morning without a word to anyone…riding away to rescue your father….So pure, so endearing…” He nearly said so virginal but decided such a comment might injure her sensibilities. “Before I could tell…” He paused, appearing contrite.
“Tell me…that…you…care?” Belle barely managed.
“Above all things on Earth, my sweetest Miss Isabelle, for that is what you are to me. I told Sir Benjamin it is imperative you remain here with us and not return to the Beast, else we never see you again. If you will but give the word, I will go to his accursed castle and kill this Beast so he will not bring you harm, or place some additional threat over you and your family.”
“It is not for you to determine that, sir. My father…”
“…has granted me your hand…if you will have mine, dear Miss Isabelle.”
She blinked, aghast, the image of the man wishing to be her husband barring her vision. For the first time in her life – even when she decided to take her parent’s place – she felt her life out of control. She tried to move but was frozen. All she could see was Winterbottom’s face as he eagerly smiled at her, although the smile was more a smirk. The world halted as his fingertips discreetly touched her cheek and warm breath tinged with wine swept over her. He took another step, pressing closer, shoving her into the wall until the bricks’ coarseness rubbed hard against her back. Isabelle wondered if the layers of elegantly clothed fat would envelope her. Beneath his bulk, she felt tiny, insignificant, helpless, in a way she had never felt around the Beast.
“I feel we would make an excellent match.” The clammy fingers moved towards her collar, pushing it aside so he might touch her throat. “If you will give me the modicum of a chance to reveal how deep my affections for you are and always have been.”
Isabelle opened her mouth, but was unable to speak as each thought, each retort caught in her throat. She stared into the piggy eyes hidden in pockets of flab. Watched the jiggle of his double chin, the wobbling jowls as he wheezed the words. Despite an inner struggle, she gazed deeper, lost in a caricature, into the face of something gross and inhuman.
“I realize…you are stunned,” he grunted, his breath hotter than before. “I see it in your eyes and yes, I understand. I understand of course.” Winterbottom’s hands swept over Isabelle’s bosom, a grin appearing when she didn’t – couldn’t – move. “Were I a young gentlewoman given the opportunity of such a match, I would be speechless as well….It is only that I look upon you…” His thick tongue swiped at his moist lips. “…and I see all the possibilities of what we could have….I confess…I have not lived the most saintly of lives, but with you, I can undergo an amazing metamorphosis in many matters.” The hands were now at her waist, the thumbs making tiny circles on either side of her belly. “All you need do is say the word. Say the word and I will protect you from that vile creature.” Her hips were firmly grasped. He tugged them forward and groaned. “Leave that to me…you have no need to return to him….Miss Isabelle…Ah…Miss Isabelle…please…please…do not weep over this Beast.”
Isabelle felt the tears harden on her cheeks, snapping her to react when they transformed into diamonds. Despite being under Sir Maxwell’s enigmatic control, she somehow turned her head. Quickly wiping her face, the jewels were caught in a tight fist.
If I can but keep my eyes…but Winterbottom clasped her face with one hand while still gripping her hips. Once more, she was looking at her would-be fiancé, still incredulous, wondering why her body was unmoving as though trapped in an depraved magic.
“What is it? Oh I see…It is the Beast….It is his hold over you, am I right? Then tell me how to get to him and I will break the spell…”
Belle’s breath was coming faster. She hated him. Hated his touch, his sickening voice, the way he made her feel enslaved despite his words of so-called adoration. Had her father given her up to this disgusting…
“You do not answer. I was certain of it and I told Sir Benjamin as much. The Beast has bewitched you or at least you cannot bring yourself to wish him harm….Well Miss Isabelle…dear Isabelle…let me tell you this…” He tried thrusting against her, but his fat prevented it. “That creature cannot be suffering as I do or he would fly to you and make you follow him! Rest assured, Isabelle. He has forgotten you.” He leaned forward, lips smacking, about to kiss her. “But I never will.”
And on that pronouncement, Belle regained full consciousness, her mind and body once more belonging to her. With a small gasp, she came to life, managing to squeeze her way past Sir Maxwell to run away, several of the diamonds slipping from her grip. They momentarily hung in midair…then struck the stone walk, shattering like ice upon impact.
It was evening in his world and the final segue of pink and violet into blue-blackness was over, the moonless night casting a net of heavy shadows upon the castle and the grounds.
There had been no thoughts of the hunt…little thought of nourishment….Only nothingness.
The statues missed her presence, the walls and air the intoxication of her fragrance….The suite had sighed and felt itself languishing without the woman who had made it live to the most….
There he walked as he did each evening since her departure…the same route repeated over and over with each passing day. From the suite to the gardens…the grottos and gazebo…the great lawn…the roses…into the woods, ignoring all that had once been a strong part of him….
At seven he was in the Great Hall, at the dining table, wondering if perhaps she would return before the deadline. He would imagine her descending the Grand Staircase, wearing a gown he had never seen before – the pearl and diamond necklace prominent upon her body – and she would smile softly and finally whisper Yes to his constant question. But after a restless half-hour, he would realize she was not coming…and he would slip to her room and pace until he was too exhausted to go further.
She would return the next day – the seventh day, but it did not matter and the knowledge brought little comfort for she was not there now. He lifted his bare right paw and gazed at it, missing the glove that was often there and lamenting the reason why. He passed the dressing table, paused and returned to finger the mirror, tempted to ask it to show him the truth…but then deciding no. His steps took him to the empty bed where the scent of jasmine, rose and violets wafted from every inch of it, and he lifted the white fur bedspread, tenderly cradling it in his paws, then holding it to his cheek.
Tears welled in the green eyes as he clutched the spread to his breast, and the chamber filled with the anguished sound of his breathing.
Someone was hurting her.
Someone was attempting to defile her.
Someone wanted to twist her, to transform her into a wanton creature like themselves, all morality and innocence destroyed.
He has forgotten you. But I never will.
The words came to his mind although he knew not who said them, but they were directed to Isabelle – that much was certain, and he wondered if she had forgotten him, now that his world was so far from her. It would be easy, very easy to dismiss a Beast, particularly if one was in the arms of some handsome young man who could love her as he could not.
Perhaps the temptation would be too strong and she would give herself over. Sacrifice herself for a family undeserving of her…
Beast buried his face in the bedspread. “My Isabelle…” he whispered. “Come home…Come home to me, my love.”