Disclaimer: I do not own the story of Beauty and the Beast. However, all original ideas and characters found in Heal The Heart are mine.

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Chapter 1 - Loophole

The sun spread kisses of warmth against her skin, making the cool water that lapped at her ankles even more refreshing. Her midnight blue skirts slightly hiked up, she had spent most of the afternoon wading in the river with her fishing line cast out. Luck had been with her today, as she'd caught three good-sized fish. Daddy will eat well today, she thought with satisfaction and a slight smile. His rations had been meager the past few days, weakening him even more. We should have enough left over for tomorrow as well. She kept a cautious gaze around her as she pulled in her line and tied her catch together; her long brown hair gleamed in the sunlight as it hung down past her waist. I told you it was worth the risk, Daddy. Her father had fought avidly against her excursion, as he always did about any venture outside the house since the reinstatement of The Custom; yet, she knew she had to procure supplies for their survival. However, since her father was bedridden, she also knew his pride was hurt due to his inability to protect her. She sighed. It's not your fault, Daddy. You've always been there for me.

Her chocolate brown eyes and her soft, porcelain features hardened as her thoughts brushed against the cause of her predicament. Damn you, Caleb. You can't just take anything or anyone you want! She had successfully avoided him up until a year ago when she ran into him in town at the butcher shop, where he rudely and openly stared at every part of her body as if examining her. He proposed marriage on the spot; never asking her but telling her, that they would get married. She refused bluntly, drawing gasps from everyone around them. The kingdom had partitioned itself in small territories after the crown prince mysteriously disappeared years ago; no one was quite sure what had happened to him. Some said that he had fallen madly in love with a girl who had no intention of being a queen, so he blindly left his calling and went after her. Others claimed that he simply went mad after the death of his parents and had either killed himself or lost his mind and now wandered the country as a fool. Whatever the case, Caleb had taken control of the town by force and made himself the official head of their small territory; he was a hard leader and struck fear in the hearts of the people.

Unfortunately, he had the notion to take her as his so-called wife because he thought she had the nicest face and the widest hips of any girl in the village. This would, therefore, provide him with the most and the best looking sons in the area. "Wife" indeed, she thought angrily, slave was more like it! She wouldn't consent to him and she thought that was, in fact, that. However, she had underestimated him; and, he commissioned the town record keeper to find a way to force her to marry him. That ultimately led to the rebirth of The Custom. Back in more uncivilized days, if a man captured a woman, brought her back to his house and kept her there overnight, she was bound to him. Who would accept the girl after spending the evening in another man's home even if nothing happened between them? Who would ever believe the poor girl anyway? She was now at the man's mercy for she belonged to him. It was completely barbaric; it was ludicrous; it was now the law; it was the loophole that Caleb found to force her to marry him because he knew she wouldn't leave her father behind. In short, it was The Custom.

She raised her hand to shade her eyes from the light and looked up to the sky. The sun was just starting its decent; time to go home and make dinner. Grasping her skirts tightly with one hand and holding her prize in the other, she took a step toward shore when something fluttered down over her and weighed her down. What is –

A deep, hearty cackle from above broke through her thoughts. Looking up, she spotted Caleb sitting on a branch of the tree above her, his blond hair blazing in the sun. He looked down and admired her feminine body from above. She was beautiful, there was no denying that, and it conveniently allowed Caleb to lead the town into thinking that was why he wanted to marry her. In reality, it was an added bonus. His sources told him that there was a vast expanse of gold on her father's modest lands. Doubtful at first, he discretely went to the property undetected to dig and see for himself. One had to know where to look, since the element wasn't in plain sight, but it was surely there. Undiscovered, it waited for him and in turn, he waited for her; waited for her to grow up and become a woman. His eyes lingered on her again. Her dress was slightly damp and clung to her faintly in all the right places. Yes, she was the most beautiful creature in his domain and she was now his as well as all the gold under her hovel of a home. His lips curled into a wicked smile; he would feast tonight.

"Well, well! Look what I've caught – a little mermaid!" He watched her struggle to escape the net. "Come now, Ariana," Caleb continued and started to climb down the tree. "There's no need to be shy around your husband."