Continuing Tales

Kissed by a Rose

A Beauty & the Beast Story
by SamoaPhoenix9

Part 2 of 33

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Kissed by a Rose




The townsfolk called their morning greetings from their windows. Belle tried to smile cheerfully, her neck getting its usual cramps as she attempted to at least nod to everyone who shouted at her. A day just the same as the one before. She would have thought, after living in this small, provincial town for over a year, her neck would have gotten used to all the turning it had to do to properly execute the morning ritual. Certainly she'd never noticed any of the other women wincing or rubbing their necks as they strolled about the square doing their family's shopping. At the end of fifteen minutes within the cobblestoned town proper, Belle usually found herself doing both. Still, she tried her best to enjoy the unthinking cheerfulness with which everyone greeted her. It might not last much longer.

"Good morning, Belle!" Someone greeted her by name, bringing her out of her reverie.

It was the baker, bearing his usual tray of fresh bread to the customers who paid him to deliver it rather than come and fetch it themselves. At the moment, it was empty, as they were right outside his shop and he was returning to fetch more. "Good morning, monsieur," she returned. The big, bluff baker was not someone to shy away from; he had always been kind to her, in an uninterested sort of way.

"The usual?" he asked.

"A few loaves extra, please."

"Of course." He took her basket and passed it to his wife inside the shop. "What's the occasion?"

"Papa leaves for the big fair this afternoon. I need to pack him provisions for the trip."

"Ah." The baker shrugged. "And where else are you off to today?" His toe began to tap.

"The bookshop." Belle smiled, remembering how this latest book had carried her away from her present problems. "I just finished the most wonderful story, about a beanstalk, and an ogre—"

"That's nice." The baker clearly had ceased listening when she started to babble, but Belle was used to this. She had similar exchanges with at least one store proprietor a week. "Marie!" the baker bellowed at his wife. "The baguettes! Hurry up!"

"They're just coming out now!" Marie, who was the same size as her husband, snapped at him as she came to the door. The baker snorted and tapped his toe louder. She ignored him, and handed Belle her basket with a harried smile. "Here you are, dear. I managed to fit the extra in around your book. You're looking well."

Belle's heart jumped, but she managed to force out a polite "Thank you," before she hurried away. 'Looking well…' it was probably an entirely innocent comment, but she was so nervous about anyone discovering her secret that she was starting to grow paranoid. I've got to get ahold of myself, or someone will get suspicious, she thought as she made her way down the street. I just have to hold out until Papa gets back from the big fair in Marseilles. Another week, at most. She'd pinned all her hopes on it.

The life of the little town was going on all around her. Shopkeepers hawking merchandise, customers complaining about prices, children chasing one another and getting underfoot, people greeting their next-door neighbors as if they hadn't just seen them the day before. Belle hardly noticed the clamor out of pure habit; in the big cities where she'd lived most of her life, people generally went about their business with regard only to things that happened in their immediate vicinity. Things happening on the other end of the street hardly mattered, because odds were you'd never see the people involved again.

Here in a provincial village, things were different. What was happening down the street seemed to be the business of everyone, and to pass by people with indifference, even unintended indifference, was a snub of the highest offence. It was also hard to live down honest social mistakes. Belle occasionally listened to gossip around the edges of her books. She was still the girl with her head in the clouds, dazed and distracted, aloof in her manner and odd in her ways. Different. The most frequent complaint was that she always had her nose in a book. That much was true; Belle never went anywhere without a book on her person. But she had made attempts during the first few months to improve her social skills, in acknowledging greetings and engaging in small talk. For all the good it had done her. These days, she kept as much to herself as she could manage without causing more gossip.

She arrived at her intended destination: the bookshop. "Ah, Belle!" the proprietor exclaimed warmly as he finished straightening the books in the window.

"Good morning," she answered. "I've come to return the book I borrowed." She fished it out of her basket and handed it over.

"Mmm." The bookseller sniffed its cover with a smile. "Smells like fresh-baked bread. Might entice the next customer who picks it up. Finished it already, did you?"

"Couldn't put it down." Belle shrugged guiltily. "I shirked a few of my chores because I couldn't peel myself away. Lucky Papa's been working so much on his new invention he didn't notice, and the animals all got fed. Mending can wait until today, after Papa's gone." She'd have to get a lot better at sewing soon anyway, though it was by no means her favorite activity. She turned and began browsing the shelves, running a fond fingertip over each binding. All titles she had already read. "Haven't you got anything new?" she finally asked.

The bookseller chuckled. "Dear girl, not since yesterday!"

Belle flushed. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean…"

"Belle, you're the most avid reader I've ever seen in this village. It would not surprise me at all to find you've read my entire stock. And I know you are used to a much wider selection. I can only apologize to my best customer for not satisfying her needs. If you can wait until the new shipment comes in next week…"

"That's all right," Belle assured him. Privately, she shuddered at the thought of spending days in the cottage while her father was gone, alone but for her nightmares. A book would ease that like nothing else, especially if it was one she'd read before. "I'll find something."

She returned to scanning the shelves. A book bound in blue cloth caught her eye. The gold lettering of its title had slightly peeled off, proclaiming it to be secondhand. Why someone would ever willingly let it go was a mystery to Belle. "I'll borrow this one," she said confidently, pulling it from between its fellows.

The bookseller put on his glasses to examine it. "That one? Again? But you've read it twice!"

"Oh, it's my favorite!" Belle exclaimed. In point of fact she had read it more than twice; a much-battered, dog-eared copy of this selfsame book was one of the many unnecessary possessions she'd had to give up in order for her father to be able to afford their cottage. She stroked the book's top reverently. "Far off-places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise! I'd give anything to live in this book."

She felt it being pressed back into her hands. "If you like it all that much, it's yours."

"Thank—" Belle stopped as the bookseller's actual words sunk into her head. She shoved the book back into his arms. "But, sir! I could never take this. I can't afford it, not now that all our money's in Papa's latest invention. And after you've already been so kind to me, letting me borrow your books without payment—"

"Don't argue, Belle. As I said, you're my best customer. I need to make it up to you for not having something new. And I daresay you are one of the few in the village I consider a kindred spirit. Don't look so surprised," he smiled. "You're not the only oddity in town; you're just the more recent addition and therefore attract a bit more attention. People have gotten used to me." He paused, and gently fitted the book into her hands. "I insist."

Belle didn't have the strength to hand it back again. She knew she should, and if it were any other book, she would have. But not Arthur and Guinevere. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you very much." She hugged it close.

The bookseller saw her to the door. "What's happened to you, Belle?" he asked suddenly. "Time was you'd have been dancing around the shop at the thought of owning another book. You've been very quiet, these last weeks."

"Have I?" Belle answered vaguely. Suddenly she felt as though a very bright light was concentrated on her. She shrank backwards slightly, away from her friend's kind concern. For a moment, she wavered towards telling him the truth, but quickly stopped herself. The risk was too great someone would overhear. "There's nothing wrong. I'm fine."

His brow furrowed. Clearly this was not the answer he wanted, but he chose to let it go. "All right. Take care of yourself, Belle."

"Thank you. I'll try."

Belle couldn't resist doing something she knew drove the rest of the town crazy: the moment she left the shop, she opened her new book and began to read as she walked, basket still balanced skillfully in the crook of one arm. It was an art she'd practiced growing up in cities like Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles; by now she was so good at it she never bumped into anything. Busy as the town was, there were much fewer obstacles to dodge than on a main Paris thoroughfare.

Whispers followed her, as they always did when she read in public. "So peculiar…nose stuck in a book…beautiful, but rather odd…" As always, she ignored them.

Glancing at the sun, she saw that she had a few extra minutes out of the time she'd allotted for her errands. The vegetable seller she favored wouldn't have her wares out quite yet, so there was no rush. Belle settled herself on the edge of the well to read undisturbed for a bit.

She'd skipped right to her favorite part of the book, where Arthur was meeting Guinevere for the first time. They were both quite young, and he was just a lowly orphaned squire, unaware of his royal heritage as the King of All England. A prince in disguise indeed, even from himself. Guinevere was a spoiled king's daughter, but somehow they were drawn to each other. They would not see one another again for several years, until their wedding day in chapter three, where Guinevere would discover the squire she had secretly fallen in love with was in fact her intended, her prince charming! Belle found the mystery of the whole thing very romantic.

She read longer than she'd meant to, and when she looked at the sun again her heart sank. If she didn't hurry, the men who had gone out at dawn to hunt would be returning to the village and she might see him. She'd successfully avoided seeing him in town for weeks, though he'd come to her house at least every few days to put his unthinkable question to her again. If the scene became any more public, however, Belle was afraid of what might happen. Gathering up both book and basket, she hurried to the vegetable seller's stall.

Negotiations on produce did not take long, and Belle took up her book to make the trek across town towards the cottage more bearable. She dodged and wove expertly through the crowd, most of whom paid her no notice. A bang erupted from behind her. Only one person would be foolish enough, and overconfident enough, to shoot in the middle of town. Belle's heart jumped, but she steeled herself. So he was in town after all. Perhaps he would be so caught up in hunting he would never see her.

The town was continuing its business around her, which was a hopeful sign. Hardly anyone in town had the skill she had of slipping through crowds. Even if he were trying to reach her, he'd never catch her.

She was almost to the small bridge that crossed the stream which marked the town's border when her book was rudely snatched from her hands. Belle turned angrily, but quailed at once when she saw who held her book.

"Hello, Belle," the big man said to her. He smiled in what he probably thought was a charming way, but to Belle it was almost feral: all teeth, and a predator's instinct behind them. She could feel her knees start to quiver and her vision start to narrow, but to faint now would be the worst thing to do. She would not put herself in his power again, not in any way, not if she could help it.

To do that, she would at all costs have to keep him from learning he was the father of the child hidden within her.

"Bonjour, Gaston," she replied, as steadily as she could.

Kissed by a Rose

A Beauty & the Beast Story
by SamoaPhoenix9

Part 2 of 33

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