At first the voice seemed far away. Sir Benjamin awoke, trying to concentrate on it, to recall where he had heard it before. It was familiar but had been missing from his life for far too long, and he blinked, shifting to his right so he might better see. The image bent towards him…and he shook his head, covering his eyes with one arm as he did.
“No…It cannot be….I…I must be dreaming.”
“No…No Father…you are not dreaming,” came the sweet reply, and the merchant permitted his eyes to examine the figure again. “You are not dreaming and I am no ghost.”
“Belle? Belle? Is that you?”
The girl nodded, silently weeping as she took one of her parent’s hands in order to kiss the back of it. “Yes Father….It is I….It is I, Belle, who is talking to you.”
“Oh Isabelle!” He sat up, taking his youngest daughter into his arms as they both embraced, the old man holding her as if afraid she might vanish as quickly as she had appeared. “My dear, dear little girl….My sweet little girl….You really are here.”
“You are here with me and well.”
“Very well, Father, yes, very well.”
He drew back in order to study her better, tears of joy still falling down his face. “But a moment ago…and now…now….How are you here? When did you arrive? You escaped! You managed to escape the creature.”
“Father…the Beast set me free so that I might visit you.”
Hewitt’s mouth fell open. “He…He what?”
“He set me free so I might visit you. I pleaded with him to allow me to see you for I knew you were ill. He told me I could.”
“Then you are home?!” Sir Benjamin exclaimed. “You are home at last?”
Belle reluctantly shook her head. “No…I…I am only visiting you, Father. The Beast was kind enough to allow me to leave when he saw how I suffered for word of you, but…I must return to him.”
“In a week…a week to the day, and I must, Father for I promised him….I swore upon everything I hold sacred that in seven days I would return to his castle.”
“So you swore upon all you loved…just as I once did….” Hewitt fell back on his pillows and Isabelle slid off the bed and knelt at his side. “He is a cruel master.”
“No…he is not cruel,” Belle insisted, the defense quite apparent.
“You mean to say that the monster has a heart?”
“Oh yes. Yes, Father, he most certainly has a heart, a heart that is oft times larger than what most of we humans should exhibit and do not. I have lived with him, seen him daily, and with every passing day we have both grown to know each other all too well….You should see him.”
Sir Benjamin shuddered. “I have seen him, remember Belle?”
“You saw when he was raging…as tempestuous as a wild animal…”
“Yes…” The memory even now caused him to fear.
“But you only saw that side of him and nothing more. One half of him is in a constant struggle with the other…and…well…I think he is more cruel to himself than he ever was to you…or to others.”
“Or…you, Isabelle?” He was surprised to see his daughter nod, an understanding smile on her lips. “So he has never been cruel to you?”
“Never. He has been so good to me, even more than I deserve.”
The merchant nearly snorted. “But Belle…I have seen him! He is so hideous.”
“Yes, you’re right and at first he is very frightening. Yet now…now…he sometimes makes me laugh. Then I see his eyes, and they’re so sad I turn away so as not to weep and upset him further.”
“My God! You actually have pity for him?”
“It’s much more than pity, Father. The Beast and I – difficult to believe – have become the dearest of friends, and that is why it is crucial to make good on my promise and return to him.”
“Isabelle…my sweet little Belle…do not tell me that you are willing to live with that monster!”
Without a pause she nodded, brushing a stray hair off her father’s forehead. She had not expected any of them to comprehend, but if Sir Benjamin could accept this in even the smallest way, she would be content. “I must, Father. Certain powers obey him, but others control him. If I escaped, I would be committing a crime against you…and against him. I will not do that, not after all he has done for me.”
“Does he threaten you?” When Hewitt realized the girl had left to sacrifice herself for him, he had gone to his bed in mourning. A day later, he received the message from the Beast, telling him Belle was safe and well, but still he doubted it, thinking never to see her again until they met in Heaven. And yet, here she was: happy, obviously healthy, and more beautiful than he ever realized.
“No….He only comes to me when his cruelty need not be feared. Sometimes his bearing is regal and he has the greatest authority about him; it is not arrogance, but confidence in himself….But there are other times…” Her voice drifted.
“There are times…when he almost limps, as though he were the victim of some terrible affliction…and I cannot help but care for his well-being…for him.”
“I do not know how you can feel sorry for him?” Sir Benjamin snorted. “This is the monster that threatened my life, Belle; who offered me my life in exchange for one of my children’s.”
“And yet he gave you food and shelter from the cold and rain. He only lost his temper when you took his rose…and I…I have had time to consider that perhaps it was a chain of events for the best.”
“So you will return?” The syllables were nearly clipped. “You will return and live with him?”
“Of course I will, Father….I know it is difficult for you to see…but I can bear his presence because…well…because I would be happy if I could make him forget his ugliness.”
Hewitt groaned, his head agitated. “Belle…Belle…you are paying a high price for being so good.”
“But Father…the Beast is good too.”
A tear fell from her eyes and the moment it struck her palm, transformed into a diamond!
“Good Lord!” Sir Benjamin shouted. “A diamond!” He took it from her, then waited, watching as another tear began to glisten on her cheek. “Another one!”
“I told him I would think of him while I was here…and he promised he would think on me. These…” and she closed her father’s hand around the jewels, “…are proof he is protected, for I wept thinking of him. It is his way of showing he cares.”
“Perhaps the Devil sent these and not the monster. Or perhaps they are one and the same!”
“Father, dear Father…rest assured…..Keep them please. They are a gift from him, to thank you for giving him something in return.”
Belle smiled and told him again, “Keep them as a gift from him.” A third, a fourth and a fifth diamond fell to the bed and the old man picked them up. “They should support you, if you need the help, so hide them please. If you tell my sisters and my brother of this miracle, they’ll take them from you when you may most need them.”
“Ah…well…your siblings.” Sir Benjamin threw his hands into the air and sighed, causing Isabelle to laugh for the first time since her arrival.
“They are well then?”
“Well and spending their funds and allowances as if the world will end tomorrow, as I have often said of them. They are all anticipating the Season in London, with Gwyneth seeking a husband and Julia seeking another. Benjamin…I have hopes for him…great hopes for I have been in discussion with Lord Cameron’s daughter?”
“Oh…Cameron?” She knew of the young woman, oddly named for her parent’s title, and heard her brother and his friends refer to her as plainer than their hunting hounds when she was not beautified with the latest cosmetics.
“Five thousand pounds a year…and she is terribly fond of the boy.”
“I hope it will work for him then, Father.” She held back her giggle at the thought of the whiny, vain young Ben attached to an even more cackly wife, but five thousand was hardly anything to laugh at!
“And…I do have even greater news for you, Belle….You…shall see your father married again.”
Isabelle gulped, forcing a smile to her lips even as she mourned inside. “Lady Nicole?”
“Has consented to be my wife. The banns were posted on Sunday last and we expect to say our vows while in London….Perhaps…” He looked optimistic. “Perhaps you might mention this to the Beast so that he will permit you to attend your father upon one of the happiest days in his life.”
If she makes him happy, then what I do I have to fear?….Except I saw her in the Mirror….There is something not right about her….I do not deny that Father loves her, but does she return that…honestly return it? Belle sighed to herself, but to Sir Benjamin she gave a very daughterly hug, placing her head on his closest shoulder. “I…shall ask….”
“Bored, bored, bored, bored…bored!” Julia’s fan moved slowly before her face and she leaned quite unladylike against the back of the iron seat. She did not care about her lethargic behavior, for she was surrounded only by her dear sister, her dearest friend, her sweet little brother and the gargantuan lusty form of Sir Maxwell. They were currently the ones she felt quite comfortable with, for they were all of like mind. She moaned, observing the two men who were a short distance away, shooting arrows at a target on the opposite side of the lawn. “How can they be so active when the morning is enough to purloin our very souls with boredom?”
Benjamin took aim and fired. “Damn! A bad one. I am not in good shape today.”
“We were up far too late and drank too much port, Benjamin old boy.” The Hewitt heir stepped aside so that Winterbottom could take his place and aim, not that he had much of an aim either – drunk, sober or recovering.
“Eh? What’s that? What about my foot?”
“You’re cheating. It’s not on the mark,” Benjamin whimpered.
“It does not matter, sweet Ben,” Gwyneth called to him, languidly taking a sip of her chilled wine. “Nothing will matter until we are again in London….Oh…what a miserably warm day. I cannot wait for the end of summer.”
“And the thought of spending the autumn and then the holidays in the City – amongst society, true society…” Julia sighed. “It will be a marvelous end of the year for all of us…particularly you,” and she nodded towards her best friend. “You will not wait until we are in London to begin planning your trousseau, will you?”
Nicole smiled and spoke in her usual deliberate manner. “It is already in progress. I, of course, told your dear father that – being widowed – it is not as though I require what I did as a young bride, but he is so generous and insisting. I find it very difficult to refuse him anything.”
Ben declared, “Damn! Another bad shot! I cannot understand why I’m not in the mood today. Perhaps we should have chosen another game.”
“I doubt you’d do any better at any of them,” Winterbottom smirked. “My remedy, my very special remedy is that a visit into town tonight might do you some good,” he added, winking.
“If I can slip away from Father. Since he decided that I should begin courting Lord Cameron’s whelp…”
“I say…who the Devil is that?” Sir Maxwell was chuckling at his friend’s words but turned slightly and saw a couple strolling along one of the garden paths, coming in their direction.
The women stopped their conversation and stretched their necks. “Hmm…” Julia began, “who is…?”
“Isn’t that Father?!” Gwyneth exclaimed.
“That is Sir Benjamin!” Nicole agreed, standing up. “I had no idea he was well enough to rise from his bed. This is very good news indeed.” Although she preferred it when he was in a weaker state for it better enabled her to finagle what she could in their courtship.
“He appears well. Wait! Who is that with him?” a puzzled Julia asked.
“Why is our Father with a strange woman?” Gwyneth queried, although no one around her seemed to know the answer either. “Who in the world is she?”
“Oh my! A lady from court!” Nicole said and now the small group gathered on either side of her.
“Will you look at how grand the vixen is?” Benjamin muttered, running his tongue over his lips. “Now if Father wished to pair me up with the likes of her…”
Julia’s eyes widened. “She is so grand…so elegant….You can see her jewels from here! And her gown! Is that what the latest court wardrobe is like? Do you see what our modiste must do for us?”
“I feel as though I’m dressed in rags,” Gwyneth admitted, looking down at her pretty and stylish morning gown.
“But why would a lady from court be here and accompanying Sir Benjamin?” Nicole asked no one in particular. “Did any of you…?”
Gwyneth and Julia screamed simultaneously.
“What?!” Benjamin asked.
Gwyneth was stammering. “It’s…It’s…It’s…”
“It’s Isabelle!” Julia finished.
“Isabelle!” the voices chimed.
The five could not move as Sir Benjamin came nearer, his youngest child on his arm, and he waved towards his other children and his betrothed, his face beaming as it had not in weeks.
“My dears! My dears, you must see the surprise I awoke to just moments before. My Isabelle…Our Isabelle has been returned to us.”
Young Ben swallowed hard, his feelings likely reflecting what they were all thinking. “My God, Isabelle. It is you!”
The sisters could hardly believe their eyes, and they looked at each other, stunned, then stared at their “prodigal” relation again. She was not as they remembered her, but then, they had considered Isabelle plain and fat and unworthy of attention, an uncultured child with her nose in a book, equal only to their servants. The young woman standing before them now was not that girl but an elegant beauty who would make every red-blooded man in England worship her. The white and rose colors of the silken gown and the pearl-studded train that streamed from her waist were brilliant in the sunlight, and although it was more for the evening, her poise was so that it did not matter. A small tiara of pearls was worked into the reddish-blonde curls flowing loosely just below her bare shoulders, but the most stunning piece of jewelry was a magnificent pearl necklace with a diamond clasp, the colors lustrous against the café au lait complexion.
“You…You…You…” Julia felt as though her tongue had grown thick in her mouth, disabling all manner of speech.
“We…We thought never to see you again, Miss Isabelle,” Winterbottom interrupted, not realizing that as someone who was not a member of her family, he was being slightly bold.
The old man kissed his daughter’s forehead. “We all did, Sir Maxwell, we all did, and yet…here she is…safe and sound. She is the breath of air I have longed for all these long weeks….Belle appeared in my room and whatever ills I suffered have now vanished.”
Nicole blinked, stunned. She long feared that if her future stepdaughter was allowed to flower, she might put all the women in the Hewitt family to shame. The day had obviously arrived! “For which…we are most…grateful….Isabelle…I am so thankful to see you alive. We all are! Your father has missed you more than words can say.”
“Where did you come from?” Benjamin finally said, only now noticing that Sir Maxwell could not take his eyes off the girl.
Gwyneth, meanwhile, was staring greedily at the necklace, one hand drifting to her throat. “What a magnificent necklace!”
Belle glanced down at it. It was the strand Beast had given her when he found his way into her room that one night. Since then, she had held it in greater regard than anything else in her collection, but…well…there were other pieces. Beast had given her so much and she could part with this one thing. “Take it, Gwyneth, as my gift to you. I am certain it will look even better on you.”
“Of course it will,” Julia mumbled in Gwyneth’s ear, as the latter eagerly snatched it from Belle’s hands. No sooner had the pearls changed hands than they turned into a bunch of dirty twisted rags, a powerful odor assailing their nostrils. The older sisters screamed while Benjamin, Sir Maxwell, and Lady Nicole jumped back in disgust.
“My God!” the merchant cried out.
“Put it down!” Julia shrieked. “Put it down now, Gwyneth!”
But Gwyneth had already thrown it to the ground…where it immediately transformed back into the beautiful necklace. While the others looked on in horror, Sir Benjamin picked it up and placed it back around Belle’s neck.
“What the Beast gave you is for you alone. You cannot give it away,” and Belle nodded, realizing now that her father was correct.
“Well now…that was quite a little trick, was it not?” young Ben softly said to his friend, but Sir Maxwell’s empty nod indicated all he could do was concentrate on Isabelle.
“Did you see that? Did you see that?” Gwyneth mumbled, shaking Julia’s arm.
“We all did, Gwyneth…so please…control yourself.” The eldest pulled her closer so she could better say in her ear, “Do not let the little witch see you behaving as such. She will put on even more airs.”
“Well…So…Isabelle…” Lady Nicole felt she should attempt to act as an intermediary for her friends were nearly hysteric and someone needed a cool head. It was crucial, she felt, to obtain all the information possible to learn how the girl had come into such fortune. “…does this mean you will again grace your father’s house?”
Isabelle looked up at her much taller father, saw the anguish in his eyes but watched as he nodded, resigned. She smiled and said, “It is a short visit. I was concerned for Father and the Beast permitted me to come. I shall not be here long.”
“How long is short?” Everyone turned to stare at Sir Maxwell Winterbottom, who suddenly realized just how ridiculous he sounded. “I mean…Forgive me but…I meant to say…how long is your visit to be?”
“Seven days,” the merchant announced. “Seven extremely short days, so we shall make the best of it, shall we not my dears?”
“Of course we will, Sir Benjamin,” Lady Nicole drawled in such a syrupy manner that Belle nearly cringed. “I think…a feast would be appropriate, a lovely feast in honor of her homecoming.”
“A splendid idea, my lady,” Sir Benjamin agreed. “I shall leave it in your capable hands.” His bride-to-be gave a slight curtsy and Isabelle was amazed at how the woman was truly making herself mistress of St. Regis Park.
Julia threw her nose into the air. “If you will please excuse us, Father…Gwyneth and I must retire to our rooms so we may prepare for the day.” She elbowed her favorite sister in a most unladylike way as Gwyneth was still coveting the necklace.
“Oh yes, we must retire to our rooms so we may prepare for the day….We must look ghastly,” and with a half-hearted curtsy they departed.
Now it was Nicole’s turn to withdraw. “I should go see to the feast. If you will all pardon me.”
Benjamin shook his head, still disbelieving. “Ahhhhhhh…Belle…honestly, we thought never to see you again, dead or alive.”
“Benjamin…that is not a very appropriate thing to say to your sister.”
“But still Father…she rides off before dawn to sacrifice herself to the monster, and now weeks afterwards, she returns and look at her! I swear to you, you would set the entire court on its’ head if they saw you now. I should not even be ashamed to call you my sister,” and he chuckled, nearly snorting.
“I believe this is your brother’s way of welcoming you.”
“So I thought, Father. It is nice to know that he is no longer ashamed of me. I should hope one day I will share the same feeling towards him.”
“Ha!” Sir Maxwell exclaimed. “Got you there Ben, old boy,” and he chuckled heartily at the young man, who was now reddening.
“I think,” Isabelle interrupted, “it might be a nice idea, Father, if I escorted you back to your room now. You still seem to be a bit hesitant.”
“It is the excitement,” the old man told Belle, but he agreed with her and upon excusing themselves, took another path that would lead them back to the mansion.
“What was all that: ‘Got you there Ben, old boy’?” Benjamin immediately shouted once his parent and sister were out of sight. “Did you actually enjoy the little bitch’s barb?”
“I rather did. Just be glad she didn’t see you lusting in her direction when she approached.”
Benjamin’s puppy-dog features became a dark shade of purple and red. “I had no idea it was my sister! You repeat that you cur and I’ll beat you senseless,” he huffed but upon calming down asked, “And what do you have to say for yourself, sir?”
“What mean you?”
“I half-expected you to consummate the deal on the spot, and with my father and sisters and Lady Nicole witnessing the entire debacle. Perhaps I could have sold tickets to the entertainment. It would be better than the best show at Vauxhall!”
Sir Maxwell grinned, not hiding his desires. “Well, you know I have long had deep feelings for her.”
Benjamin shrugged. “So you have often told me and I’ve no idea why.”
“It was my intention to speak to your father after his return weeks ago, until…well…matters happened as they did. Now she has returned…”
“Only for a week according to Father.”
“A week, dear Ben, is more than enough time. After all, I have Lady Nicole as an ally, and doubtless your sisters too.” He thumped his waistcoat with his fat fingers, the fabric strained by the ever growing belly. “May I count on your support as well?”
“Support?” Benjamin was perturbed, but already he was beginning to think along the lines of his good friend. “Support….You will now woo her? And to what end?”
“The end being that Isabelle will become my wife, and she will tell us all her secrets about this creature that imprisoned her, falsely imprisoned her. He must be made to pay for his threats to your father and for using an innocent girl.”
“And if what she wore was a sampling of his riches…if she is made to tell us the basis of his powers…then Ben, dear Ben…we could all become as rich as Croesus and as powerful as the King.”
Only now did young Benjamin look enthusiastic….
Inside the house where their trusted maids – women who would say nothing to the remaining staff, which was loyal to only Sir Benjamin and his youngest – assisted them in undressing so that they might begin an even more thorough toilette, Julia and Gwyneth steamed.
“Witchcraft! That is what it was. Witchcraft plain and simple,” Julia pronounced as she shook down her hair. “Can you imagine if this was one or two hundred years ago?”
“Or three or four? Hmm…A Church committee would have been most interested in that little exhibition we witnessed. Is there anyone we might approach with this, sister?”
“Well, they no longer burn at the stake.”
“Regrettably,” Gwyneth sighed. “It was only a jest! I should not wish Isabelle’s death. For one, it would be too quick and merciful for such a selfish little…”
“Then what must we do? She strolls in her as if she was that French peasant warrior witch, the savior of the land…”
“Or a noblewoman…or a member of the royal family…or the ton! She was putting on such airs around us, around our Ben and dear Nicole. I think she even had Sir Maxwell’s eye.”
“Oh! Marriage to such a gentleman would serve her right!” Julia laughed, then lowered her voice as she said, “He would not give her a moment’s rest, although if he wants offspring as homely as she….Gwyneth…what are you thinking?” she asked on hearing her sister’s hysterical amusement.
“I should not repeat in detail what I am thinking…except that I have heard – from the best authorities – that he has a propensity for…well…for things that would make our little sister recoil should she become his wife. Things that are most enlightened when it comes to the ways between males and females. And there would be nothing she could do but obey his every whim.”
“It would serve her right!” Julia was already satisfied and nothing yet had happened. “Do you think we can get Father to go along with the agreement?”
“He will if Lady Nicole has her way. She had always hoped for such a union for it would profit our entire family to have Sir Maxwell as a relation. Now that she is so close to our Father…”
“Yes, yes….It would be perfect. Perfect,” Julia sighed, gazing at her reflection. “But Gwyneth…”
“We must be nice to her.”
“We must be nice to her. All of us, Ben as well. Sir Maxwell…we already have his support. Lady Nicole will ‘love’ her too.”
“Think about it Gwyneth – think about it!”
“I have. It is too incredible for words.”
“Think harder,” and Julia tapped an index finger aside her temple. “That little fool is happier than we are and she has spent weeks with a monster, and only God knows what she has done to win his favors.”
“Are you thinking…?” and Gwyneth snickered. “Do you think Sir Maxwell will mind his betrothed not being…”
“Gwyneth! The matter at hand.”
“Right. She is happier than we are.”
“Yes…and more importantly, she is rich! After all, so many husbands are no better than her creature…her…Beast.”
“She’s bursting with pride too!”
“But do not worry. I have got a good head on my shoulders,” Julia proclaimed. “We must be very friendly to her during these seven days. Each of us…love her to death…and worm out all her secrets before she realizes what has occurred.”