Author's note: Wow - 8,000 words! So much for a "short epilogue," huh? Sorry about that - I think that subconsciously, knowing this was the last chapter, I just didn't want to stop writing! I've had so much fun with this story, it was kind of hard to let go! So please forgive my self-indulgence in this final chapter.
As the coach approached Molyneaux, Genevieve found herself growing more excited and more nervous.
The last few weeks had been a whirlwind of activity. After much discussion, she and Gaston had decided to settle in Molyneaux. But that being the case, Genevieve wanted to hold the wedding itself in Reillanne, so her friends could share her joy and wish her well. Gaston had agreed, and Genevieve had spent a feverish two weeks designing and sewing a beautiful wedding gown for herself and a fine suit for Gaston, while making arrangements for the wedding itself.
Genevieve had confided the truth about Gaston to her closest friends, Nathalie, Janine, and Lucie. They had been flabbergasted at the incredible story, and Nathalie had even asked her point blank if she was sure she was feeling well. Genevieve had laughed. "I know, it sounds impossible! But wait till you meet him." And sure enough, when the wedding day arrived, there he was: the tallest, handsomest man they had ever seen, gazing at Genevieve with pride and love, and, Nathalie noticed, seemingly unable to keep his eyes and hands off her. He was constantly putting his arm around her, or patting her hand, or playing with her hair, as if to reassure himself that she was really his. Nathalie liked that. She could see that they were crazy about each other, and that he would treat her friend like a queen. Seeing Genevieve so ecstatically happy took some of the sting out of her departure, as did her promise to return to Reillanne every year for a visit.
Gaston had hired an elegant, comfortable coach for the ride back to Molyneaux. A groom rode on top to drive the coach's horses. Genevieve's clothes and sewing equipment were in trunks piled behind him. Their own horses, Fleur, Cerise, and Tristan, walked along behind, their reins tied to the coach, while Remy the basset hound rode inside with the newlyweds, curled up on the seat next to Genevieve.
That first evening, leaving Reillanne as a new bride, Genevieve felt as though she were living a dream. It had started to snow, and the woods around them were a wonderland of white swirling flakes. Gaston wrapped a fur blanket around the two of them to keep them warm. Genevieve rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes. She could hear his heart beating, steady and strong. She drifted off to sleep nestled against him, his powerful arms wrapped around her, feeling utterly safe, protected and loved. The snow fell softly outside the window as the coach travelled on through the night.
Gaston watched over her as she slept in his arms, so peaceful and trusting. It was still such a miracle to him that she was really his bride, after those terrible weeks of thinking he had lost her forever. Suddenly he felt that he wanted to do something for her - a surprise, something special that would show her just how much she meant to him. He thought about it for a long time as the coach rolled on. Then finally, he smiled, as the idea came to him. It was perfect. But it would have to wait till they got back to Molyneaux.
They stopped at an inn that was much more opulent than the ones usually found in small towns - it was a place where aristocrats stayed when they were traveling. Gaston knew of it from his years on the road, and had purposely chosen it. The coachman took the horses and dog to the stable while the newlyweds entered the inn.
Genevieve was delighted with their room, which was more luxurious than anything she'd ever seen: dark red velvet draperies on the window, a huge satin canopy bed, a soft thick carpet on the floor, and an enormous fireplace. "Oh, this is lovely!" she said, clapping her hands. She sat down on the bed and bounced a little, marvelling at its exceptional softness.
Gaston grinned, glad to see her pleasure. "Only the best for my girl," he promised, and went to start a fire in the fireplace.
Genevieve rolled onto her stomach and propped her head on her hands, watching him. It was strange, she thought: when he was a dwarf, she had not realized that he was under a spell, but now she wondered how she could have possibly missed it. His larger-than-life personality had never really seemed to fit comfortably in that shrunken form. Now that the spell was broken, she could see how much more truly "himself" he was, so much more natural and at ease in his own skin. She loved to watch him as he moved about, his muscles rippling, prowling around the room with the grace of a panther.
He saw her watching him and grinned, coming over to join her on the bed. "Happy, darling?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," she said lovingly, gazing into his eyes.
He kissed her, tenderly at first, then with increasing urgency. Gently, he laid her down on the bed.
Genevieve had been a bit nervous about the idea of her wedding night, not knowing what to expect. But the desire in Gaston's eyes when he looked at her, the way he kissed her so hungrily, as if he couldn't get enough of her, his hands exploring her body, made her feel like the most desirable, alluring woman in the world. She found herself responding with equal passion, his touch awakening feelings in her she'd never known she had.
Gaston had expected her to be timid and uncertain, and at the beginning she was. But to his delight, she soon opened up to reveal an inner fire and passion that matched his own. He had thought he would need to be extra careful and gentle with her, but instead found that it was all he could do to keep up with her.
Afterwards, Genevieve lay back on the bed, looking up at him with a blissful expression. "That was...glorious," she said dreamily. "I wasn't expecting that. My friends just told me 'it hurts a little the first time, but then you get used to it.' They didn't make it sound very appealing."
Gaston grinned. "Well, your friends didn't have me, did they?" he bragged.
Genevieve threw a pillow at him. "Oh, how typical! Take all the credit, why don't you?" she teased. "There were two of us in this bed, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Oh, I noticed, believe me," Gaston said, eyeing her curves appreciatively. "And you were incredible." He took her in his arms and kissed her neck.
"Ah, now that's more like it," she told him, smiling and putting her arms around him.
It took them a week to reach Molyneaux, stopping each night in towns along the way. But now their journey was almost over. Genevieve was looking forward to seeing her new home, but also slightly apprehensive. She had spent her whole life in one small village. The idea of relocating to an entirely new place far away was a bit scary, to say the least. But Gaston had assured her that Molyneaux was just another tiny village, very similar to Reillanne. Hopefully it wouldn't be too difficult to adjust, she told herself.
They arrived at Molyneaux at 10:00 at night. In the darkness, the village was already asleep. Genevieve was filled with anticipation as they entered Gaston's house, excited to explore her new home. Gaston lit some kerosene lamps, and started a fire in the fireplace. "What do you think?" he asked, a bit anxiously.
Genevieve looked around. "I'm impressed!" she said, marvelling at the large sitting room, so much bigger than her own, with its tall windows. She imagined how airy and full of sunlight the room would be in the morning. The forest-green couch and chair were rather faded, though, she noticed, and the room could use a coat of paint. "Would you mind if I made a few changes, just to brighten things up a little?" she asked.
He smiled. "I was hoping you would!" he admitted. "I don't know anything about decorating. It's your home now, so you fix it up however you want. Buy new furniture, decorate however you want - money's no object." He paused. "Except...leave the trophies, okay?"
She laughed. "Oh, I wouldn't dream of touching your trophies!" she assured him. She toured the house, and her eyes widened at the sight of the huge kitchen, with a full-sized dining room table and an enormous fireplace big enough to roast an entire steer. "Wow. Guess I'll be doing a lot of cooking, huh?" she said, smiling. There was also a large master bedroom, three smaller bedrooms, a den with more of Gaston's trophies, and a full basement.
"This is wonderful," she said sincerely, hugging him. "Lots of room! We'll have to get started soon filling it up with children, hmmm?" He grinned, thrilled at the idea.
The next morning, Genevieve was surprised to see Gaston already up and dressed when she awoke. "Where are you going?"
"Oh...I need to go out for a couple of hours. I just have a few things I need to do," he said mysteriously. "You go ahead and unpack while I'm gone."
She tilted her head, looking at him curiously. She guessed that he was planning some kind of surprise for her. "Well, all right. But hurry back - I'll miss you."
But to her disappointment, he was gone most of the day. Genevieve filled the hours by unpacking, cleaning, and planning out in her mind how she would redecorate. At 5:00, Gaston returned. "What took you so long?" Genevieve asked.
"I'm so sorry - I didn't mean to leave you alone all day. But I have a surprise for you - actually, two surprises," he said, his eyes gleaming with excitement. "But first, you have to get dressed up, in the best clothes you have."
Genevieve was intrigued. "All right," she said, smiling. She went upstairs to change. Half an hour later, she descended the stairs. Gaston looked up, and let out a low whistle. She was wearing a dove-grey satin evening gown that seemed to shine like silver in the light. It was tasteful and elegant, yet clung to her body in a way that showed off her figure. Her sandy-brown hair, which usually hung straight to her shoulders, had been swept up into a chignon, with soft tendrils lying loosely on either side of her face.
"You look beautiful," said Gaston sincerely, and she blushed.
Gaston was wearing the outfit he had worn to propose to Belle. Genevieve thought he looked very dashing, and told him so. He kissed her. "Come on, let's go."
It was almost 6:00 now, and darkness had already fallen on this December evening. The town looked deserted. To Genevieve's surprise, Gaston brought her to the marketplace, which was empty at this hour, the shops all shuttered tight. Gaston stopped in front of an empty storefront. "This is it," he said proudly.
Genevieve was confused. "What? I don't see anything."
Gaston took out a key and opened the door. He gestured her inside and lit a kerosene lamp. The shop was dusty - apparently it hadn't been occupied in a while - and empty, except for a large worktable, a dressmaker's dummy, and some scraps of cloth littering the floor. "This shop belonged to Madame Reinard," Gaston explained. "She was the village seamstress for...well, forever, it seems like. She used to make dresses for my mother when I was a little boy. I found out that she passed away six months ago, and the shop has been empty ever since. So I bought it for you! I thought you could be the new seamstress here. You'd have so much more room for your sewing things here, instead of having to work out of the house, and it would be a place that's all yours."
Abruptly he stopped short, looking worried. It suddenly occurred to him that his gesture could be misinterpreted. "Only if you want to, of course," he added hastily. "If you want to stay home, that's fine too. Believe me, I can take care of both of us easily - I never expected my wife to work. It's just that you seemed to really love making dresses, so I thought--"
"You thought right," she interrupted, smiling. "I do love making dresses. I would hate to give it up. This is the best present you could ever have given me. Thank you so much!" She kissed him, then eagerly began looking around the shop. "Oh, this is so wonderful!" she said excitedly. "I have to start cleaning the place up, and then I'll go back and get my sewing things, and start arranging everything--"
Gaston laughed. "Not now! You can do all that tomorrow. We're going to be late."
"Late? For what?" asked Genevieve.
"You didn't think I asked you to get all dressed up just to look at an empty shop, did you?" Gaston said, beaming. "That's the second surprise. I arranged a huge party for the entire village at the town hall to announce our marriage!"
Genevieve stared at him. "The entire village?" she repeated weakly, her heart sinking.
She should have seen this coming, she realized in dismay. Gaston always had to do everything in the biggest, flashiest way possible. He thrived on being the center of attention. But she didn't. Too much attention made her self-conscious. She had hoped to meet her new neighbors gradually, in non-intimidating ways: inviting a couple of Gaston's friends over for dinner, greeting the local merchants when she went shopping, finding out if there was a ladies' sewing circle or other group she could join...small steps to getting acclimated and becoming accepted by the community.
The discovery that on her very first day here, she was to be put on display and stared at by an entire village of strangers made her feel faint. She looked up at Gaston, about to protest.
But Gaston was already talking, excited about his surprise for her. "I kept thinking about that village dance you told me about, where all the boys ignored you and you didn't get to dance at all. And it made me angry," he explained. "You deserve so much better than that. So I decided to give you your very own village dance - all for you! You'll be the guest of honor, the queen of the ball, and everyone will pay attention to you. And this time, you'll dance every dance...with the handsomest man in town, of course," he added with a twinkle in his eye.
Genevieve was touched. He wanted to take away one of her sad memories and replace it with something magical. It was the most romantic thing she had ever heard. She hugged him. "You really are the dearest man in the world, you know that?" she said affectionately. "I don't deserve you."
"Who does?" he teased. He took her arm gallantly. "Shall we go?"
"Yes," she said resolutely. She was still dreading the idea of facing so many strangers at once, but now she was determined not to show it - not after he had gone to so much effort to give her an unforgettable evening. She would get through it, somehow.
They reached the town hall and entered. Gaston immediately strode up to the front of the room, where a small stage was set up. But Genevieve followed more slowly, looking around and taking everything in. The big room had been festively decorated with bright ribbons and colorful flowers. There were several long tables covered with platters of roasted venison and pheasant - courtesy of Gaston's morning hunt - along with bowls of punch, kegs of beer and ale, trays of frosted pastries, and a big decorated cake. In a corner, several men held musical instruments. There seemed to be hundreds of people in the room, all milling about and talking.
Genevieve saw three pretty blonde girls staring at her. They looked identical, and she realized they must be triplets.
She heard them whispering to each other as she passed. "Oh, my God, look at that girl!" one whispered. "What's wrong with her face?"
"I don't know, but I feel sorry for her," said the second. "Imagine having to go around looking like that?" She shuddered. "It must be awful for her, poor thing."
"I wonder what she's doing with Gaston?" mused the third. "They came in together."
"Maybe he's taking up some kind of charity collection for her," suggested the first. "That must be his big announcement."
Genevieve felt her face redden in humiliation as she hurried to catch up to Gaston. It's not like you haven't encountered this before, she told herself. She'd gotten the same condescending, pitying treatment from Melisande and several others back home. Well, you DID hope Molyneaux would be just like Reillanne, she reminded herself ruefully.
But at least at home, people were used to the way she looked, she thought. She'd lived there her entire life. Aside from Etienne, who went out of his way to be nasty to her, and people like Melisande, most of the townspeople in Reillanne didn't really notice her scar anymore. They'd seen her around town for so many years that she was no longer a novelty. But here in Molyneaux, she was a stranger, and people were staring at her as though she were a freak. It made her uncomfortable, to say the least.
But she reminded herself that this was only her first day in Molyneaux. Surely within a few weeks, the people here would grow accustomed to her appearance and accept her as part of the community, as those in Reillanne did. She hoped so.
Gaston smiled and extended his hand to her as she approached him. She took it and climbed next to him on the stage, feeling incredibly nervous and self-conscious. But Gaston was in his element, proudly surveying the room like a king about to address his loyal subjects. He cleared his throat. Immediately all conversation ceased and all eyes turned to him expectantly, curious about the "surprise announcement" he had promised. Gaston grinned, enjoying his audience's rapt attention.
"Thank you all for coming here tonight," he began. "As you know, I have a very important announcement to make." He paused a moment to let the suspense build. Then he turned to Genevieve. "I'm proud to present Genevieve - my wife. We were married last week in Reillanne."
There was a collective gasp. The whole town stared in disbelief, shocked to learn that Gaston had gotten married without anyone knowing, and equally shocked to discover that his wife was a total stranger, someone they'd never seen before. And she was disfigured - certainly not the unparalleled beauty everyone had always assumed Gaston would marry. The villagers were completely stunned.
Enjoying the dramatic impact his announcement had caused, Gaston put his arms around Genevieve, dipped her romantically, and kissed her. Out of the corner of her eye, Genevieve saw the blonde triplets gaping, their mouths open in shock. They looked green with envy. Despite her self-consciousness, Genevieve couldn't suppress a sneaking sense of satisfaction at that. Still feel sorry for me now, girls? she thought.
Gaston straightened up, his arm still around Genevieve's shoulder. "I told you all about the terrible curse I was under for five years," he continued. "But I didn't tell you how I finally escaped the curse. It was all due to Genevieve. She saved me. You see, the only way I could break the spell was to find true love. I had to search all over France for the one girl who could love me even as an ugly dwarf. And Genevieve was the one, the special girl who saw past my appearance and loved me for myself. She's the most amazing girl I've ever met," he said, looking at her affectionately. Genevieve smiled back at him.
"And now, I have another announcement to make," Gaston declared. "I'm proud to tell you that Genevieve is going to be the village's new seamstress. She's taking over the shop that used to be run by Mme. Reinard. And you're all so lucky to have her here! Genevieve is the finest seamstress in all of France. As you know, I spent years travelling all over the country, and I never saw gowns as lovely as hers anywhere. Her designs are the most beautiful you'll ever see - they're fit for royalty. Why, her dresses are even worn by the aristicratic ladies of Paris!"
That last boast wasn't strictly true - Genevieve had copied Parisian dresses, and quite well, but her own creations had never been sold in that august city. But Gaston was on a roll. Genevieve was embarrassed by his lavish praise; she wasn't normally one to blow her own horn. But she also couldn't help smiling at his enthusiasm. She knew that Gaston was proud of her and thought she was wonderful - so, naturally, he had to brag to everyone about how great she was. That was just Gaston. Asking him not to brag was like asking a fish not to swim.
"So, please give Genevieve a big round of applause, and welcome her to Molyneaux," Gaston finished. The villagers clapped dutifully. Gaston jumped down from the stage, and lifted Genevieve down beside him. Everyone went back to eating and mingling.
LeFou came bounding up to them. "Wow, Gaston, that was some surprise! I can't believe you got married and no one knew!" LeFou was amazed that Gaston had chosen such an unattractive girl for a wife...but then again, he'd been equally surprised when Gaston had first told him he wanted to marry Belle, an oddball bookworm with a crazy father. But it was Gaston's decision, and LeFou certainly wasn't about to question it. He turned to Genevieve. "Congratulations! Gaston's a great guy. You're really lucky."
"I know I am," she said, smiling.
LeFou looked at her curiously. "So let me ask you...why do you look like that?" he asked, gesturing at her scar.
Next to her, Genevieve felt Gaston's muscles tense, like a guard dog's when its master is threatened. Quickly she put her hand on his arm. She could tell LeFou's question came from innocent curiosity, not malice. And she much preferred an honest, direct question to catty gossip or snide remarks.
"I'm glad you asked me that," she said warmly. "Gaston asked me the very same thing the first time he met me. Didn't you, dear?" she added sweetly.
Gaston relaxed, looking sheepish. "I guess I did."
"I was in a fire as a child, and I got burned. It left scars," Genevieve told LeFou simply. "That's all."
"Oh," said LeFou, accepting this. "Well, welcome to Molyneaux! I hope you like it here."
"I'm sure I will," she said, relieved. She hoped meeting the rest of the villagers would go as smoothly as that.
Pierre came over to the couple. "Congratulations, Gaston!" he said.
"Thanks," said Gaston proudly.
"Hey, listen, I was looking for you earlier today, but I couldn't find you," Pierre continued. "I was buying a new horse, and wanted your advice. He's an Andalusian gelding - big one, almost 18 hands. Looks to have a steady gait. The guy said he's a great hunter, but I'd love for you to look at him and tell me what you think. He's right outside."
"Of course," said Gaston, always happy for an opportunity to show off his expertise. He looked questioningly at Genevieve. "Will you be all right here for a few minutes?"
"Certainly," said Genevieve, smiling. "You go ahead." Gaston squeezed her arm affectionately and went outside with Pierre, talking about horses.
Genevieve felt a bit awkward, standing there alone, so she picked up a pastry from the table and started nibbling on it, just for something to do.
Madame Bavardage, the town gossip, eyed the disfigured girl critically from across the room. Why on earth Gaston had found it necessary to traipse all the way to the other side of France for a bride when there were so many eligible, lovely girls right here in Molyneaux, she would never know. And such a homely girl, too, she thought with a sniff.
But then, Gaston had never shown much sense when it came to women, she thought. She remembered that years ago he had wanted to marry Belle - such an odd girl, always reading, her head so lost in the clouds that she often didn't hear when someone spoke to her. Mme. Bavardage recalled the time she had been busy washing clothes in the fountain when, to her surprise, she'd suddenly heard singing. She'd looked up to see Belle, reading a book and singing out loud to the sheep! She was certainly the strangest girl Mme. Bavardage had ever met.
But at least Belle had been pretty. Mme. Bavardage had to concede that point. This new girl of Gaston's didn't even have that going for her. Mme. Bavardage headed over to the girl, determined to get the lowdown, which she would of course dutifully report back to her friends.
"Let me offer you my congratulations," Mme. Bavardage said, approaching the girl. "I'm Mme. Bavardage. Genevieve, is it?"
"Yes, that's right," said Genevieve with a warm smile. "I'm glad to meet you."
"Likewise," said Mme. Bavardage briskly. "Well, you must be very pleased, young lady. Gaston is quite a catch."
Genevieve wished people would stop telling her that. "Yes, he's a wonderful man," she replied.
"I had hoped at one time that he might marry my Danielle," Mme Bavardage confided. "She's such a lovely girl, and the most wonderful cook. He would have been very lucky to have her for a wife, I can tell you."
Genevieve didn't know how to react to this. Was she supposed to apologize? she wondered. "She sounds very nice," she said awkwardly. "Um...did she find someone else, or is she still looking for a beau?"
Mme. Bavardage puffed out her chest. "My Danielle never had a shortage of beaux, believe me!" she said proudly. "She was always highly sought after. She ended up marrying young Gilles, the cobbler."
"A cobbler!" said Genevieve enthusiastically. "That's a fine profession. It takes a lot of skill and craftsmanship to be a cobbler - he must be very talented."
"Well, yes, he is," agreed Mme. Bavardage, pleased.
"And so practical, too," Genevieve added diplomatically. "I mean, everyone needs shoes, don't they? I'm sure he's a wonderful provider for your daughter. You must be so happy for her."
"He does do very well for himself, it's true," said Mme. Bavardage proudly. "And what about you? Gaston said you're a seamstress, I believe?"
"Yes, that's right," said Genevieve.
"It will be good to have a seamstress in the village again. We haven't had one since poor Mme. Reinard passed," said Mme. Bavardage with a sigh. "Although I doubt you'll be up to her standard - she was excellent. Her dresses were beyond compare."
"They must have been. I wish I could have met her," said Genevieve truthfully. "With all her experience, I'm sure she could have taught me a lot."
Mme. Bavardage looked at Genevieve a bit more kindly. She found herself starting to take to the girl. "Well, you'll learn," she said encouragingly. "How long have you been a seamstress?"
"I've been making my own clothes as long as I can remember," said Genevieve. "But I started sewing for a living when I was 16."
"A very sensible occupation for a young girl," said Mme. Bavardage approvingly. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
"Thank you. I hope so," Genevieve said sincerely.
Mme. Bavardage hesitated, then plunged ahead. "I hope you don't mind my asking, my dear, but...what happened to your face?"
Sighing inwardly, Genevieve wondered if she should just make a sign and hang it around her neck. Or post a large billboard in the center of town. But then again, Mme. Bavardage was clearly eager to spread gossip - once she knew, the whole town would know, and then Genevieve wouldn't have to answer the question as often, she thought. "I fell in the fire when I was two years old, and got burned," Genevieve said. "It left scars. I know it looks terrible, but there's nothing I can do about it, so I've just learned to live with it," she added, to try to avoid any exclamations of pity.
"Very wise of you. No point crying over spilled milk, I always say," said Mme. Bavardage. "And you've already landed a husband, so no worries there, eh?"
"I suppose," said Genevieve, a bit uncomfortably.
A few of the other housewives called to Mme. Bavardage from across the room. She waved to them. "Well, I'd better go. It was lovely to meet you, my dear," she said warmly.
"Thank you," said Genevieve, a bit surprised by her suddenly friendly tone. I must have passed the inspection, she thought, feeling relieved.
Mme. Bavardage hurried over to her friends, Mme. Jacasserie and Mme. Causeur. "So? What's she like?" they asked eagerly.
"She seems like a very nice, sensible girl," said Mme. Bavardage approvingly. "Friendly enough, and doesn't put on airs." It was her highest form of praise - she detested people who acted superior or above their station.
"Well, that's good to hear," said Mme. Jacasserie. "I'll be glad to have a seamstress in town again - my eyes aren't what they used to be, and mending clothes has been difficult these past few months." She looked thoughtful. "I've been needing a new dress...maybe I'll stop by her shop tomorrow."
"I'll come with you!" said Mme. Causeur, eager to check out the new girl herself.
Meanwhile, in a far corner of the room, several of Gaston's friends were lounging around, discussing the big news. "It's a joke, I'm telling you - a big put-on," insisted Claude. "There's no way Gaston would marry a dog like that! I'm betting he staged this whole thing and hired that girl to pretend to be his wife. Mark my words, after the party he'll fess up and have a big laugh over how he fooled everyone."
"I don't think so," said LeFou doubtfully. "He acts like he really loves her. And Gaston's not that good an actor."
"He did say she broke the magic spell for him," the baker pointed out. "The poor guy was stuck as a dwarf for five whole years, until she came along. Maybe he married her just because he was grateful."
"Hell of a price to pay, though," said Francois with a grimace. "To have to spend his whole life looking at that ugly mug? Especially for a guy like Gaston - he could have had any girl he wanted! He always said he'd marry the most beautiful girl in town, remember?"
"Well, there's gotta be a reason," said Claude. "You know Gaston - he never does anything he doesn't want to do." He thought about it. "Maybe she's really hot in bed!" he suggested.
The men guffawed at the thought. "But he'd have to keep his eyes closed the whole time!" joked Francois.
Suddenly there was a heavy hand on his shoulder, and he felt himself being spun around. He looked up to see Gaston towering over him, glowering. "Take it back," Gaston snarled, his eyes flashing dangerously.
Francois gulped. Ever since his return, Gaston had been uncharacteristically tolerant and even-tempered. But now, Francois was reminded why no one ever dared cross him. "Sorry, Gaston!" he said quickly. "No offense. We were just talking."
"Just talking about my wife," Gaston pointed out, still angry. He turned his head to glare at Claude. "You too," he said threateningly.
Claude held out his hands placatingly. "I'm really sorry. We're all sorry, right, guys?" The men all nodded quickly, murmuring apologies. "We didn't mean anything by it, Gaston, honest. I'm sure she's a great girl."
"She is a great girl," said Gaston firmly, letting go of Francois. "She's the best. And I want her to be happy here. That means you all treat her with respect. Understand?"
"Of course!" "You got it!" they all chimed in hastily.
"I think she's very nice," LeFou piped up.
Gaston looked around at them all, making sure they got the message, then relaxed. Suddenly he grinned broadly, like the sun coming out after a storm. "Come on, guys, this is a party! Drinks are on me. It's not every day the town hero gets married." He sauntered over to one of the kegs and handed out glasses of beer to all the men.
Claude raised his glass. "To Gaston and his new bride!"
"Hear, hear!" the other men said, toasting. Then LeFou started up a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," and the others joined in boisterously.
On the other side of the room, Genevieve saw the three blonde triplets approaching her. "Hello," she said, smiling.
"Hi. I'm Bambi. That's Bunny, and that's Bubbles," said Bambi.
"We just wanted to say congratulations on your wedding," Bunny said in a syrupy-sweet voice. "We're all so happy for you!" But Genevieve could tell from their expressions that they were anything but.
"Thank you," she replied, pretending not to notice anything wrong.
"I must say, it was such a surprise to find out that Gaston married you!" said Bambi. "I mean, considering that you're...well, let's just say you're not his usual type." Her sisters giggled.
Genevieve made her eyes wide. "Really?" she said innocently. "In what way?" She knew they'd never have the guts to actually call her "ugly" to her face.
Bambi looked miffed that she hadn't taken the hint. "Well, you know," she said. "Given that Gaston is so incredibly handsome."
"Yes, he is handsome, isn't he?" Genevieve agreed brightly.
"So it was a shock to find out he'd married someone like you," said Bubbles.
"Someone like me?" Genevieve repeated in the same innocent tone. She laughed self-deprecatingly. "I'm sorry, I'm just not following you. What ever do you mean?" She tried to keep her expression bland and innocuous, but it was hard not to laugh at the triplets' mounting frustration at having their veiled insults unheeded.
Looking annoyed, Bunny changed the subject. "Let me ask you - confidentially, between us girls," she said. "How did you know Gaston was under a spell?"
Genevieve was confused by the question. "How did I know?" she repeated, bewildered. "He suddenly transformed into a completely different person. It was kind of hard to miss."
Bunny shook her head impatiently. "No, I mean before that! When he was a dwarf." It still rankled the triplets that they'd seen Gaston on his very first day as a dwarf, but had laughed at him, thus throwing away the only chance they'd ever had with him. If only they had kissed him when he'd asked them to, surely he would have married one of them! It killed them to know that this homely girl had been clever enough to break the spell and win the prize, instead of them. "How did you figure out that falling in love with him would make him become handsome?" Bunny persisted.
"Ididn't," said Genevieve. "It was a real shock when it happened, believe me."
The triplets looked at each other skeptically. "Come on," said Bubbles. "We all saw Gaston when he was a dwarf. You can't tell me you fell head over heels in love with him looking like that! You must have known."
Genevieve was beginning to get angry. Although they didn't seem to realize it, they were now insulting Gaston - implying that he was nothing without his handsome looks. Genevieve wasn't going to let them get away with that. "Of course I fell in love with him!" she said firmly. "Gaston is the dearest, most wonderful man I've ever known. His looks have nothing to do with it. Even as a dwarf, it was obvious. After all, the spell only changed his appearance - inside, he was still the same person."
Then in the sweetest voice possible, she added, "But I'm sure you girls must have realized it too, when you saw him as a dwarf. I've only just met you, but already I can see what kind, caring, sensitive girls you are. I know you would never do anything as shallow as judging someone purely by their appearance."
The triplets stared at her, not knowing what to say. They certainly weren't going to admit that yes, they were exactly that shallow. Worse, they couldn't very well insult Genevieve when she'd just complimented them. They looked at each other helplessly. "Well, yes, of course we realized it," mumbled Bunny.
At that moment, they were interrupted by the arrival of a dark-haired girl, who exclaimed, "Genevieve! THERE you are! I've been looking all over for you!" She took Genevieve's arm in a chummy way and hurried her away, calling over her shoulder to the triplets, "I have to talk to Genevieve for a minute, you don't mind, do you?"
At the punch table, the girl let go of her arm. Genevieve looked at her in confusion. "Please forgive me - have we met?"
The girl giggled. "No. Sorry about that! I just figured you could use an excuse to get away from those jealous hussies."
"Oh. Thank you!" Genevieve said gratefully.
"Any time. Although to be honest, you didn't really need my help," the girl said admiringly. "You did a great job handling them all by yourself."
"Unfortunately, I've had a lot of practice with people like that," sighed Genevieve.
The girl smiled. "I'm Amelie. Welcome to Molyneaux."
"Thanks," said Genevieve, glad to meet someone friendly. "What's the story with those girls, anyway?"
"Oh, they're just jealous," Amelie said dismissively. "It's so ridiculous - Gaston had to get married to someone eventually. And they're all married anyway! They all accepted proposals last year, while Gaston was still missing. You'd think they'd just let it go already. It's not like they were anything special; practically every girl in town was smitten with Gaston, after all."
"Including you?" asked Genevieve curiously.
Amelie shook her head, smiling. "No, I have the distinction of being one of the very few women in town that didn't have designs on your husband."
"That's a relief. I'm glad someone wasn't after him!" said Genevieve. She smiled. "So, how did you manage to withstand Gaston's myriad charms? He's completely irresistible, you know - he told me so himself."
Amelie giggled. She had always assumed Gaston would marry some fawning beauty who worshipped the ground he walked on. She was delighted to see that he'd picked a girl with a sense of humor. "Well, he is very handsome, of course!" she said. "But personally, I just found him a little...overwhelming. Not that he was ever interested in me anyway! But I was always very shy around boys; I never knew what to say to them. And Gaston was so big, and so loud, and so famous...I was a bit intimidated by him, to tell you the truth."
"He certainly does make his presence known," said Genevieve with a smile.
"But I can see that he really loves you," added Amelie. "The way he looks at you...it's really sweet to see. He obviously adores you."
"He's really a great guy," said Genevieve fondly. "How about you? Are you married?"
Amelie nodded. "Yes, I'm married to LeFou. He's over there," she added, nodding in her husband's direction.
"Oh, Gaston's friend! I've met him," said Genevieve. "He seems very nice. How did you two meet?"
"Well, I always used to see him and Gaston around the village," said Amelie. "Of course, everyone was always fawning over Gaston. No one paid any attention to LeFou, he was just in Gaston's shadow. But I started to notice him. I thought he was cute, in a teddy bear kind of way, you know? And I saw how he was with Gaston - always doing things for him, trying to cheer him up and things like that. And the more I watched him, the more I started to realize that he's the kind of person who..." She paused, trying to find the right words. "He's not close to many people. But when he does get attached to someone, he'll do anything for them. He's totally devoted and loyal to people he cares about. I really admired that. And I started to think, 'The girl that he falls in love with is going to be very lucky.'"
"Makes sense," said Genevieve, smiling.
"Then Gaston disappeared, and the whole village went into mourning," Amelie went on. "Everyone was in shock. Gaston was such a fixture here - how could he be gone? I would see LeFou wandering around almost in a daze, like he didn't know what to do with himself. I felt bad for him. So one day I made a batch of cookies, and brought them to him, and told him how sorry I was about his friend, and how awful he must be feeling. You could have knocked him over with a feather! He was totally shocked that anyone would be thinking about him at a time like that. It meant a lot to him. And then we started talking, and we got along well, and he asked permission to court me. We were married three months later."
"That's lovely," said Genevieve. "He's lucky to have you."
"Thanks. But I feel lucky too. We've been very happy. And we have the sweetest little boy - you'll have to meet him! His name is Denis," said Amelie.
"Oh, that's wonderful! I love children," said Genevieve. "We're hoping to have six or seven ourselves."
Amelie smiled. "I have to tell you: I'm really glad Gaston married you, for totally selfish reasons," she confided. "He's LeFou's best friend, so we see a lot of him, now that he's back. I knew when Gaston eventually got married, we'd be getting together with him and his wife often. Which means that I'd have to try to get along with her, whoever she was. I'm just glad he picked someone nice!"
Genevieve smiled. "I'm glad too. It's good to meet someone friendly here. I have to admit I feel very nervous, being the outsider in a place where everyone has known each other forever."
"Oh, don't worry," Amelie reassured her. "People will see you as a novelty for a few days, but then before you know it, it'll be like you were always here. You'll see."
At that moment, a girl with shoulder-length, butterscotch-colored hair in corkscrew curls rushed over, clearly upset. "Oh, Amelie, look!" she said tearfully, holding out the long skirt of her light blue dress. There was a huge, jagged rip in the skirt. "We were dancing, and my skirt snagged on a nail. I'll have to go home!" She sniffled. "The biggest party of the year, and I have to miss it!"
"Oh, Monique, that's a shame," said Amelie sympathetically, looking at the skirt. "Do you have another dress you can change into? Maybe you can go home and come back."
"No, this is my only party dress," Monique said sadly.
"Can I see that?" asked Genevieve. She examined the rip. "I can fix it, don't worry." She rummaged in her reticule. She always carried a needle and two spools of thread with her, one black and one white. She held out the white thread. "I'm sorry I don't have blue. But your dress is very light - I don't think it will show up too much, especially when you're dancing."
"Can you really fix it?" asked Monique breathlessly. "That would be so wonderful!"
"It's no problem," Genevieve assured her. "Here, sit down." Monique sat in a chair. Genevieve sat next to her, lifted the skirt, and quickly and expertly stitched it up in 10 minutes. She examined it critically. "Well, it's not exactly my best work. But it'll get you through the party. I don't think anyone will notice, as long as they're not looking too closely." She smiled at Monique. "If you bring it to my shop tomorrow, I'll fix it up properly, with the right color thread too. You'll never know it was ever ripped."
Monique impulsively hugged her, much to Genevieve's surprise. "Thank you SO much! You're an angel!" She stood up. "I have to tell Jacques we don't need to go home after all!" She started to hurry away, then abruptly turned around and rushed back. "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm so rude!" she said apologetically to Genevieve. "Congratulations! I should have said that before. I'm Monique. I'm really glad to meet you."
"I'm glad to meet you too," Genevieve said, smiling.
"Thanks again! I'll see you at your shop tomorrow!" said Monique with a wave, hurrying to find her husband.
"That was very kind of you. She would have hated to miss the rest of the party," said Amelie to Genevieve appreciatively. "Oh, and listen, do you and Gaston want to come over to our house for dinner tomorrow tonight?"
"I'd like that," said Genevieve, pleased.
On the other side of the room, Gaston looked over and saw Genevieve with Amelie. She was smiling and talking animatedly, having a good time. As he watched, she laughed at something her friend had said. When she laughed, she looked so happy, so radiant. To Gaston, she outshone every other girl in the room.
He crossed the floor, coming up behind her and putting his arms around her. "May I have this dance, fair lady?" he asked charmingly.
She smiled and tilted her head back, looking up at him. "Why of course, good sir knight."
Gaston took her hand and led her over to the group of musicians, who had taken a break. He tossed them a few gold coins. "Play a waltz," he said.
"You got it, Gaston," they replied, picking up their instruments.
At the first strains of music, the villagers looked up. They smiled to see Gaston dramatically sweeping his new bride onto the dance floor with a flourish. He was a good dancer, his natural grace and coordination serving him well as they twirled around the floor. The villagers formed a circle around the couple, smiling and clapping their hands, just as they would have if this were the actual wedding.
Genevieve blushed pink, but to her surprise, found that she was actually enjoying the attention for once. She was surrounded by smiling faces, and the man she loved was holding her in his arms. How could she be other than blissfully happy?
Hmmm, maybe this party wasn't such a bad idea after all, she had to admit.
Gaston was glad to see her having fun, even with all the eyes of the villagers upon them. She should enjoy the attention, he thought - she deserved it. She was wonderful, and the whole world should know it. He would have shouted it from the rooftops if he could.
Other couples joined them on the floor, and soon the room was filled with dancing pairs, whirling about the room, with Gaston and Genevieve in the center.
The floor they danced on was made of simple wooden boards, not polished marble; the ragtag band of musicians played harmonicas, tambourinesand accordions, not harps and violins. But as Genevieve twirled in Gaston's arms, she felt as glamorous and magical as any fairytale princess.
She looked up at him, smiling at her with so much love in his blue eyes. He was no cultured, aristocratic Prince Charming, but he was hers, and he was all she wanted.
"Having a good time?" he asked, holding her close.
"Oh, yes," she breathed. "I know I'm going to like it here." She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest, and knew that she was home.
Author's Note: I just want to say thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for all the reviews! It was such an incredible thrill for me to get so many reviews! And it was especially wonderful to get so many long, detailed ones with lots of comments - thanks to Serengeti Dawn, Rena, MarieChristine81, Chef13, Letylyf, Beautygirl, BookRose, Silverwolfie, Ruiner of Worlds, Maleficent Angel, ReluctantDragon, Jocanda, Sparky, LumBabsFan, and anyone else I forgot! It truly means so much to me to know that people liked this story. I also have to give a shout-out to my dear friend Ilene Froom, who read my chapters before I posted them, and always knew EXACTLY the right change to make or detail to add to make them so much better. She's absolutely brilliant. Thanks, Ilene!