The Dear Hunter: A Beauty and the Beast Christmas Tale

by Merovingian Lady

(Disclaimer: Belle, Maurice, Gaston, Lefou, and all other related characters are from Disney's Beauty and the Beast and no copyright infringement is intended. This is solely for entertainment purposes. Merry Christmas and Joyeaux Noel, everyone!)

Every day was usually the same as the day before in Ste.-Eulalie, but Christmastime was different.

The first snows of the season had long since blustered through, transforming the village into an enchanted, sparkling fairyland. Shopkeepers hung wreaths on their doors and fragrant garlands on windows, horses' harnesses jingled merrily, children threw snowballs and dared each other to ride makeshift sleds down the steepest hill at the far end of town. People flocked to the baker's for fresh pumpkin pies and the butcher's for the first smoked hams of the season. Everyone just seemed happier.

So why, thought Belle, have I been feeling so low?

She knew at least partly why. Money had always been scarce for their little family, but winter meant more for firewood and hay, and less for everything else. The bookseller had not received anything new since before the first snows, and might not again until spring. She spent several hours each week now patching and darning clothes. Meat was a once-a-week luxury and the soup was simply more watered down. Belle sighed as she looked into the pot. She'd chopped up some carrots to go with the barley and broth; it would have to do. I'm really not too hungry anyway.

Papa was probably finishing up for the day; the sun had set more than an hour ago. She smiled to herself. No explosions or funny noises today, which was always a good thing. Maybe he'd made some more progress. Every one of his inventions sold, no matter how small, meant a little more money.

He'd be pleasantly surprised tonight. Normally, after all her chores were done, she'd have spent a winter afternoon curled up reading by the fire. Today, she'd ridden Philippe to the edge of the woods and chopped down a little pine sapling. It stood in the corner, decorated with its own cones and a garland made from pieces of an old skirt. A spare bit of wire from her father's workshop made a perfect star on top. Belle surveyed her work. Just because you didn't have a lot of money didn't mean you couldn't have Christmas.

The door to the workshop swung wide and Maurice, her father, peered at her through his goggles. She laughed.

"Papa, you forgot again."

"Forgot? Oh, drat," he muttered and pushed the goggles on top of his flyaway white hair. "I guess I did. Let me get cleaned up first, then…" He stopped in mid-stride. "Belle, is that a tree? A real tree?"

"Merry Christmas, Papa. We don't want Pere Noel to forget us, do we? And look," said Belle, "one for you, and one for me." Over the mantel hung two bright green knitted stockings. "I finished them yesterday."

"Perfect! They really add some cheer, don't they?" chuckled Maurice. "Don't think I'm not getting you a little something, either."

"Oh, Papa, you don't have to…"

"But I want to." He kissed her on the cheek. "My daughter deserves it."

"How's that new invention coming along?" asked Belle as she began to set the table.

"It's getting there. You know, I think everyone could use a little help with the snow and ice this time of year. Everyone's going to want one."

Belle winked at her father. "So you're still not going to tell me what it is?"

"We have to save some surprises for Christmas, don't we? I might just have it done in time." Maurice had taken off his tool belt and helmet, and sat at the table. "Smells delicious. I could eat a boar."

A ladleful of soup went into each bowl, and there was a little of yesterday's loaf of bread left. "Not a boar, but it'll do," Belle said quietly. "Let's save our appetites for Christmas dinner."

They ate in silence for a few minutes, candles flickering. Then a loud knock on the door made them both sit up in surprise.

"I'll get it, Papa," muttered Belle. It had better not be who I think it is.

A peek through Maurice's viewer invention at the door confirmed her suspicion. Still, it was rude not to answer. Maybe she'd be able to get rid of him quicker than last time.

"Bonsoir, Belle," announced Gaston in his usual self-important way. "A little cold tonight, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it is," she answered. Although he was wearing his red short-sleeved tunic, he didn't seem to be cold. He probably wanted her to invite him inside. "Gaston, I'm really sorry, but my father and I were just sitting down to dinner. Is there something I can do for you?" It was hard to be polite.

He swaggered across the threshold, bringing the snow and mud on his boots with him. "As a matter of fact, since you asked…" He trailed off, having caught a glimpse of his good looks in the hallway mirror. He preened for a moment, then eyed their Christmas tree in the corner. "Is that your tree?"

"Belle did it all herself," interrupted Maurice. He had left his dinner and stood at his daughter's side.

Ignoring Maurice, Gaston continued. "I think you can do a little better than that, don't you?"

"Our tree is fine." Belle shot him a glare, which, as usual, he failed to notice.

"Well, I wouldn't expect a girl to be able to cut down a real tree," laughed the hunter. He slapped his thigh in amusement at his own joke.

"What do you want, Gaston?" Her hazel eyes glimmered with anger.

"I didn't see your name down for the village gift exchange, Belle," he said, still smiling arrogantly. "Don't tell me you're putting a damper on the season?"

"I didn't put my name down, or my father's, because we're celebrating in our own way," said Belle as patiently as she could. "Now, unless there's something else, we really have to finish our dinner before it gets cold." She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing they could barely afford to buy gifts for each other.

"It just so happens I'm still looking for company for the Christmas Eve party. Every girl in town would just love to come with me. What do you say?"

She'd lost count how many times he'd already "asked" her this week. "As I've already said, I'm doing something else that night. But I appreciate the offer. Good night, Gaston," she said, edging him towards the door like a collie would a sheep.

"And Merry Christmas." The door slammed behind him.

As she washed the dishes, Belle realized she'd hardly touched her food. She had even less of an appetite now than earlier. Gaston tended to have that effect on her. She'd just have to have barley and carrot soup again tomorrow.

"Is everything all right? I'd forgotten how forward Gaston could be," offered Maurice with a hand on her shoulder.

She sighed. "'Forward' isn't the word I'd use, Papa. He's just plain rude. I'm sorry he ruined our dinner."

"It's not your fault. Now don't you worry, I'll clean up. You go on upstairs, pick out a book, and I'll see you in the morning." He squeezed her shoulder, trying to make her smile.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. Now off to bed with you. Don't forget to say your prayers." They embraced. "I love you, Belle."

"I love you too, Papa." He always knew how to make her feel better. "No matter what anyone says, we'll have a merry Christmas."

He chuckled. "I've got to get an early start. A few more bugs to work out and it should be just fine. Just in time for Christmas."

"Good night, Papa. I'm sure you will."

By the time Belle had gotten the fire going in her room, Gaston and his boorishness were nearly forgotten. Nothing was quite so wonderful as warm blankets, a good story and the soft crackling of the flames. From her small row of books she'd selected an old favorite, the Odyssey. Homer's fabulous world of one-eyed monsters, sorceresses, and vengeful gods took her far away from her own, and that was fine with her. It would give her something to enjoy at least until Christmas night.

She was so absorbed in the story that she hardly noticed two hours fly by. The fire had died down to a glowing pile of embers by the time she finally looked up from the pages. Her father was right; she had to get a good night's sleep. There was much to do tomorrow. Odysseus, Telemachus and their adventures would have to wait until the next night.

Feeling drowsy, Belle managed to mark her place and kneel beside her bed for prayers. Her heartfelt words were the same ones she spoke every night.

I pray that someone will recognize Papa for who he really is: a true genius. Maybe then we won't have to worry so much about money. Just let him sell a few of his inventions this winter. Bless him and be with him, amen.

Perhaps because it was Christmas, she felt inspired to ask for something more. Let me find enough to buy just one gift for my father, because he means so much to me. She hesitated, then continued. My Christmas wish is to receive a new book. This I humbly pray, amen.

She slept well that night, dreaming of coming home to an Ithaca of her own.

Morning came with a hard frost and a brisk wind from the northwest. Belle had donned her woolen cloak and mittens to feed the chickens and collect eggs, and still she shivered. Another heavy snow was not far off. If it had to snow, at least maybe they'd have a white Christmas, she thought, spreading feed on the frozen ground. The hens and rooster quickly devoured it all. She hurried to give the other animals their breakfast so she could cook the four warm eggs in her apron.

She was immediately grateful for the warmth inside. There was no sign of Maurice, only a note on the table in his scrawled handwriting. He'd gone down to his workshop earlier than usual to try and finish the new machine, whatever it was. He had added "Do Not Disturb" in large, underlined letters alongside a drawn smiling face. Belle smiled. It was one trait she'd certainly inherited from him: a dogged determination to solve life's problems.

Two poached eggs and a cup of tea later, she felt full and ready to start her day. It was Wednesday, the day she'd normally shop for all their necessities: bread, milk, candles and oil, meat for the week. She was going shopping, but there would be more stops than usual today.

Belle took a last long, hard look at what she had placed into her basket last night. Papa didn't know, of course. A pair of delicate silver earrings with pearls. They had been her mother's. Maxim Colbert the silversmith would give her a fair price for them. Besides, she thought, all they do is gather dust in my night table. We need food and warm clothes more than pretty things right now. We can buy them back once Papa sells this invention.

She pulled on her cloak and stepped outside. It was slightly warmer now that the sun had emerged. All in all, it was a perfect winter day.

Everyone in Ste.-Eulalie seemed to be out today; shopping for everyday items as well as gifts for their families. The dress shop, haberdasher and leatherworker's shop each bustled with a throng of eager customers. Belle passed them all with hardly a glance. Her first job was to see Maxim. The big silversmith stood outside his stall, polishing a beautiful serving dish. "Bonjour, young Belle. What can I do for you?"

"I was hoping you could look at these," she answered, reaching into the basket. She handed him the cloth bundle with the earrings inside.

"Hmm." Maxim reached into his vest pocket for his jeweler's scope. "Not my work, but very nice indeed. Don't suppose you'd like to sell them?"

She felt a lump in her throat. "I…I don't want to, but I need to. It's hard to explain," she managed.

"No need to explain at all. Come on in and I'll see what I can manage."

Fifteen minutes later Belle stood outside with three fat silver coins in her basket, added to the two she'd set aside already. It was enough for a week's worth of food, but more importantly, now she could buy her father a gift. It had been so long since she'd had money to spend; she scarcely knew where to start. Papa said not to get him anything. If I were in his shoes, what would I want the most?

The obvious choice was tools or supplies for his workshop. The ones he had were sometimes cobbled together or made entirely from scratch. If he had a new tool kit, maybe he'd be able to work more efficiently. She decided to stop by old Yves LeBlanc's mercantile shop, which carried a little of everything. Papa tended to go there on those rare occasions he went into town alone.

Ste.-Eulalie was not a large town, and she passed many familiar faces in the narrow streets. Everyone favored her with a smile. She felt her own lips tilting upward almost involuntarily in return. Just the sights and smells Christmas brought were enough to raise her spirits.

Outside the mercantile, though, she ran into several faces who did not smile back. The blonde Beaulieu girls, Marcelle, Musette, and Melisande, stared at her with their three identical pouts. Each wore a new fur-trimmed cape and carried a matching muffler. They'd clearly been gossiping in their catty way just before she arrived.

"Good morning," Belle said with a brief curtsy. It couldn't hurt to be polite, especially at Christmas.

"Why would you be out shopping?" shot back the girl in the kelly dress, whom she presumed was Melisande.

"The only one she has to shop for is that lunatic father of hers," teased Musette.

Marcelle did a cruel imitation of a book pressed closely to her nose. "And she'll be reading when everyone else is celebrating on Christmas Eve."

Belle took a moment to swallow her anger, then chose her words carefully. The triplets had never been kind to her, for she had been the object of Gaston's affection ever since she came to the village. "I'm just here for myself today. Merry Christmas to you."

She ignored their gales of laughter and ducked inside the shop. LeBlanc's was not as choked with customers, probably because most of his merchandise was more practical than frivolous. Monsieur LeBlanc himself, who had to be nearly as old as the bookseller, stood behind the counter measuring out an order of horseshoe nails for the blacksmith. He waved one frail hand and she waved back.

It was obvious to see why Maurice favored the shop. All manner of tools, from tiny handsaws to an iron plow, hung from the shelves, the walls, even the ceiling. Mixed in were objects ranging from fishing poles to hand-carved walking sticks, and a forlorn-looking stuffed burlap bear with button eyes. Belle grabbed the bear and sat him upright. He did look a little happier, she decided.

"Belle, it's been too long. And how is your father?" chirped M. LeBlanc in his squeaky voice.

"Good morning, sir. He's fine; he's finishing a new invention." Aside from the bookseller, he was one of the few people in town who appreciated Maurice. "He wouldn't tell me what it is, though."

"Ah, well, I'm sure it's a real doozy. That fireplace cleaner he sold me is still going strong. Even got a couple of others asking about it." He chuckled and drew on his ever-present pipe. "If you're looking for something for him, I've got just the thing."

"But how did you…"

He smiled, looking like Pere Noel himself. "Follow me."

From behind the counter, he took a wooden box filled with a dozen wrenches of different sizes. Each was handmade and shone dully. "What do you think? They've got his name all over them," said the shopkeeper.

"Oh, I don't know," began Belle, thinking immediately of something less expensive. "How much do you want for them?" She had to ask; the wrenches seemed to be the perfect gift.

"I'd sell them for sixty, normally, but you can have them for fifty. A Christmas special."

A hundred rested in her basket. Fifty, if she shopped wisely, would be more than enough for this week, with a little left over for a goose and trimmings on Christmas. She nodded. "He'll love them. Can you wrap them for me?"

Feeling a little giddy, Belle hurried through the crowd with her father's gift in hand. Just picturing how his eyes would light up made her smile.

The next few stops she made were much less of an adventure. A fresh baguette, two bottles of milk, an order of hay and a few Christmas apples for Philippe, and a visit to the butcher for some cured beef and the promise of a freshly prepared goose Christmas Eve. Her basket had grown heavy, and she sat for a moment on the fountain in the center of town. The water had long since frozen into a solid chunk of ice. She looked down and saw her own rosy-cheeked reflection.

Sunlight, already waning, danced across the snowdrifts in flashes of gold and…

Silver?

A brief glint caught Belle's eye, and she crouched beside the fountain. Surely it couldn't be. She dug with her mittens, and another silver coin rested in her palm. It wasn't from her basket; she'd already spent the one hundred with only a few coppers remaining. A brief scan of the square revealed her to be, for the time being, the only person in sight. Where had it come from?

Scarcely able to believe her good fortune, Belle held the coin close to her chest. It was real, no mirage, and it was hers. But what to do with it?

She remembered her wish from the previous evening. With enough food for the week, a gift for her father, and Philippe already taken care of, would it really hurt? Nearly running in her excitement, she headed to the bookseller's.

Monsieur Messier was poring over some ancient-looking volume when the bell rang, and he immediately beamed over his glasses. "My dear Belle! You know, I've not had a single customer all day! Unless you count those two silly boys looking for naughty rhymes."

"Good afternoon, sir. I was hoping you'd still be open."

The book closed with a thump and a small cloud of dust. "Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul. Hard to believe that the great Caesar once may have walked where we stand now," he said. "It's good to see you. Are you wanting a good story to read for Christmas?"

She shook her head. "For once, I have enough to buy a book of my own. Anything you can recommend?"

"That you haven't read already?" he laughed. "I'd loan you the Caesar if it weren't so fragile, and heavy. Maybe some Chaucer, or Shakespeare?"

"I'd love something new, but that's probably out for a while," said Belle, a sad look coming over her face.

He climbed onto the ladder and pulled a slim book from between two history texts. "How about this one? Beowulf."

Her eyes widened. "Where did you get this? I've always wanted to read Beowulf!"

"Never mind where I got it. And no need to borrow; I'd like you to have it."

"Monsieur!" she gasped. "I can't…I mean…" She was so rarely at a loss for words.

The bookseller placed it into her basket. "You're my very best customer, and I want you to have it for Christmas. How many others around here are going to want it? Now off you go, Belle; I must get back to my Caesar. And tell me what you thought of Beowulf, won't you? It's one of my favorites."

"Of course I will!" Belle was surprised she wasn't floating off the ground in delight by now. "Thank you so much, and Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas to you, and I'll be seeing you soon."

The soaring feeling of joy did not leave as she walked toward home. Temptation tugged at her, but she'd have to wait until later. And it was starting to get much colder.

I still have one silver! She remembered the coin at once. It had been her intention to buy the book herself, but M. Messier's kind gift meant she still had money left over. All of a sudden she felt pulled in different directions.

Another book? No, I don't want to be rude. Besides, I don't think he'd have two new books in one day. A second gift for Papa was probably out too. Then, Gaston's mocking words rang in her ears. Don't tell me you're putting a damper on the season.

It was Christmas. She remembered her mother always saying that this season, more than any other, was about giving. Surely it couldn't hurt to take part just a little bit in the festivities. Maybe she'd be able to make someone happy on Christmas day. Belle wheeled about and headed back toward the center of Ste.-Eulalie and the town hall.

Everyone had begun to head inside for the day; a few flurries already swirled about in the dim late afternoon sun. The town hall, aside from Our Lady of the Woods, was the most prominent building in the village. Each half-hour colorful wooden figures danced underneath the clock, which now read just past four o'clock. She had to be getting home soon. Underneath the clock tower was the velveteen sack into which names for the village gift exchange had been placed.

It can't be all bad. I'll just take a name, and buy that person a nice gift that costs one silver, share in the spirit of giving. I don't even need to put my own name into the mix.

She reached into the sack and withdrew a tiny scroll. Unfurling it, Belle felt her heart sink.

Printed clearly on the parchment was Gaston de Valois.

Anyone but him, she thought. Even one of the Beaulieus. She couldn't begin to imagine spending money on the boorish hunter, Christmas or otherwise.

She was about to place the name back just as Madame Rousseau, the mayor's wife, emerged from inside the town hall. She was an elegant older woman with her hair drawn back in a severe bun. "Hello, Belle! I didn't think you were participating in the gift exchange. Was your name on the list?"

It was now or never. "Oh, Bonjour, Mme. Rousseau. I, ah, decided to join in at the last moment," said Belle. Why did I do that? I should have just taken the money and given it to the alms box at the church!

"Don't suppose you'll tell me whose name you drew?"

"It's supposed to be a secret until Christmas Eve, isn't it?"

The other smiled indulgently. "Yes, that's true. Well, I must be going. Last-minute preparations for the party. Will we be seeing you this year?"

As usual, no mention of her father. "I'm not sure. I don't even have a proper dress to wear," Belle protested. And that, at least, was true.

Mme. Rousseau clucked her tongue. "I could lend you one of Sophie's," she said, referring to her own daughter.

Belle tried not to laugh out loud. Sophie Rousseau, despite her status as the mayor and his wife's only child, was called "the Mare" by the eligible young men in town and had never married. Her dresses would probably fall right off. "That's very kind of you, Madame, but I'll have to wait and see. If I don't see you before then, Merry Christmas." She picked up her basket.

"And to you as well."

The pleasant thoughts of reading her new book were obscured by the sudden feelings of bitterness for Gaston as she headed for home. Was this some kind of strange punishment, or maybe heaven's idea of a practical joke?

Come on, it can't be that hard. I'll just get him something simple. He's easy to buy for, right? She paused for a moment and thought. Maybe some arrows, or anything with antlers. Amazing how simple his tastes were. I can drop the gift off secretly at his house, and…

"Fancy meeting you here, Belle," came Gaston's booming voice, and she stopped dead in her tracks just in front of the bridge.

"Hello, Gaston." He stood right in front of her as he liked to do, conveniently forcing her to stop. Belle tried not to make eye contact. "I've really got to be getting home, so please excuse me."

He stayed right where he was, smirking. He'd probably been out hunting; his quiver and bow were slung over one shoulder. "Not out trying to cut down trees again, I hope."

Why could he never avoid insulting her? "No, not tonight. Just shopping," she said, trying to step around him. It wasn't easy; he stayed with her.

"Have you given any more thought to coming with me on Christmas Eve?" he asked. "It's at the tavern, and you still need to come over and take a look at all my trophies."

Summoning all the patience she possessed, Belle stared at him. "Gaston, I'm sorry to say this, but 'no' really does mean 'no' in this case. I really don't enjoy parties that much. I'm flattered that you'd think of me, though. How about one of the Beaulieu girls? They really would enjoy it, I think."

His blue eyes flashed dangerously. "No one says 'no' to Gaston!" he thundered, grabbing her left wrist. "Why don't you want to go? Tell me!" He advanced on her like a wolf onto a doe.

Belle tried to break his iron grip and couldn't. "It doesn't matter! If I say 'no,' that is enough of an answer. Let go!" she shouted back at him.

In the heat of her anger, she forgot she was carrying the heavy basket in her right hand. Finally breaking free, she flailed, trying not to fall into the icy creek below. For one horrible moment she saw M. Messier's gift of Beowulf soar into the gloom like some strange bird, then it dropped into the water and out of sight. Even if she'd been able to get down fast enough, the current would carry it too quickly away. It was gone.

Even Gaston was silent for a split second. The hard slap as Belle's hand connected with his face was especially loud.

"Look what you did…you…bastard!" she screamed, surprised at the intensity of her outburst. "I'll never get it back!"

He did not seem angry anymore, just shocked. One hand strayed to his cheek. "It's just a book," he said finally. "Not worth getting that upset about."

Belle turned with a strangled sob and ran, crying, all the way back to the cottage.

"What happened?" Maurice exclaimed, seeing her slumped at the table, face buried in her hands. "Are you all right?"

She kept sobbing, but managed to speak. "No, Papa, I'm not. I…Gaston made me lose…" For a moment she couldn't continue, and her father let her rest her head on his shoulder. "Gaston did something really terrible, and there's nothing I can do."

"You can tell me everything. Here, let me make you some hot chocolate."

She did; omitting only the parts about selling her mother's earrings and drawing Gaston's name from the velveteen sack. When she finished, Maurice's bushy eyebrows were knitted together in fury.

"Why, that big galoot, he doesn't hurt my daughter and get away with it," he rumbled, rolling up his sleeves. "I'll go and teach him a lesson right now." He looked more comical than threatening with his hair corkscrewing everywhere.

Through her tears, Belle managed a soft smile. "It's all right. I doubt he'd learn a lesson anyway. That skull of his is thicker than rocks."

"Couldn't you tell the bookseller?"

"I'd be hurt just telling him I lost the book, whether it was my fault or not, Papa," sighed Belle.

He tilted her chin up. "But you'll have to tell him anyway. He always likes to talk to you about what you've read." He was right, of course. They sat for a moment, then one of Maurice's moments of inspirations seemed to strike. "Wait right here, Belle, I think I've got just the thing to chase the blues away."

Had he finished the invention, finally? She sipped at the last of the hot chocolate. It was one of the only things Maurice knew to fix properly, and it warmed her inside.

"Close your eyes, now," he called from the cellar. She obliged. "Merry Christmas, even if it's two days early. I think it's called for."

It was not a new invention, but a haphazardly wrapped package in front of her. With a look of delight, she opened the gift and gasped. It was a handsome leatherbound book, stamped Aesop's Fables. Belle threw her arms around her father and hugged him tightly.

"You didn't have to get this. It must have cost a fortune!" In her joy she still felt a pang of regret.

"Surely M. LeBlanc told you? I sold him half a dozen of those fireplace cleaners this month. He paid pretty well for them, too," said Maurice with a wink.

"That's wonderful!" They embraced again. "I have something for you too, Papa, but it'll have to wait until Christmas," Belle said, seeing the look of curiousity come over his face. "And no looking in my basket."

After an hour of warmed-over last night's soup, talking to her father about his day, and putting away the dishes, the sting of losing Beowulf had begun to lessen a little. Besides, she had Aesop to look forward to now. Maurice had fixed another pot of hot chocolate, and they sat next to the dying fire, enjoying the warmth.

"Belle, I'm sorry about what happened. If there's anything I could do…"

"You already did, Papa. I'm so lucky to have you."

For the second night running, she felt oddly relieved as she pulled down the covers of her bed later that night. Leaving the Odyssey on her night table, she cracked the cover of her new book and began to read "The Fox and the Grapes."

She opened her eyes on Christmas Eve not knowing what time it was. Oh, no, I'm late feeding the animals! was her first thought. Outside her tiny window, the world was once again cloaked in snow. It must have fallen overnight. Philippe, as big as he was, stood knee-deep in his paddock.

Hardly taking a moment to enjoy the beauty of the snow, Belle threw her cloak around her nightgown, not bothering to change. As she hurried down the stairs pulling on her boots, she heard Maurice's voice.

"Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

"I'm sorry, Papa, I'm late for my chores. I must have slept in."

"No need, I've already taken care of it all. Except breakfast; I never was much of a cook." He chuckled.

Belle stared in astonishment. He really thought of everything when she was feeling down. "Thanks so much. I'll at least fetch us some eggs. How many would you like?"

She'd always loved the particular calm of a new-fallen snow. Even the animals were hushed. Philippe did whinny in greeting, and she fed him one of his Christmas apples. The hens barely stirred as she gathered four eggs from their coop. Jean-Louis, the orange tabby, was sound asleeep in a ball on his favorite pile of straw.

I can't spend all day reading today. It's just perfect for making a snowman.

After a quick breakfast, Maurice retreated to the workshop and Belle tugged on her heavy winter clothes for a day outside. She had at least a few hours before the butcher shop closed, and she intended to enjoy them.

The meadow behind the cottage was a vast, unbroken sea of white. Belle noticed the tracks of animals here and there: a cardinal, a fox, a deer. Behind her she dragged a sled Maurice had made for her; she'd long since outgrown it. But it was useful for carrying things. Today it held a carrot, several lumps of coal, twigs, and one of her father's old hats for the snowman.

As she hummed one of her favorite carols, "Adeste Fidelis," Belle felt a pang of sadness. It would have been fun for her father to join her, but as he so often pointed out, his joints didn't take to the cold much. Her mother had died when she was eight, and she had so few memories of her. Aside from M. Messier, there was no one in town whom she could really call a friend. She was enjoying herself, but it became painfully obvious that she was alone.

Stop it! This is supposed to be the happiest time of the year, and you're feeling sorry for yourself again!

Belle kept humming, "Good King Wenceslaus" this time, and began rolling a ball of snow for the bottom third of her creation. The bitter winds on her exposed skin felt good in some strange way, and she kept working. All around her, songbirds began to gather in search of food.

Realizing what she'd forgotten, she plowed back through the waist-deep snow to get some seed for the birds. It couldn't hurt to take a little from the chickens. But by the time she'd gotten inside, brushed the snow from her dress and cloak, fetched an apronful of seed, and come back, she felt strangely exhausted. The snowman seemed like less of an adventure and more of a chore now. She sighed and spread the seed.

Even poor company could be better than being alone. And it was Christmas Eve. There were a few coppers left from yesterday; maybe she could find a last-minute something for her father in town before she had to pick up the goose. She knew she also had to pay M. Messier a visit if his shop were open.

She decided to knock on the workshop door rather than disturb her father. "Papa? I'm headed to town to pick up the goose. I'll be back before dinnertime," she called.

His reply was barely audible over the whirring and clanking of machinery. "All right. I'll see you then. Be sure and bundle up."

"I will."

There was no one to plow the path from the cottage into town, so Belle simply waded through the snow as if she were a little girl again. She looked back and saw their little dwelling, which looked just like a gingerbread house. Bare trees were iced with a thousand frozen droplets. It's almost like something out of one of my books.

Stepping across the icy bridge, she suddenly remembered what had happened last night. She risked a glance below, a fool's hope that Beowulf would somehow be waiting for her below. Instead, there was only frigid water rushing to the north. Gaston, that boor, not even able to realize he'd hurt her.

Belle knew the tiny scrap of paper bearing his name still rested in her basket, along with the silver coin she'd not spent. She decided it could wait until later.

The harsh weather, and the fact that it was Christmas Eve, had left the streets of Ste.-Eulalie all but deserted. Everyone who was out had a cowl or muffler pulled over his or her head, and she couldn't tell who was who. Luckily Gaston was nowhere to be seen. Even in a cloak, his tall, rangy frame was easily recognizable.

A short distance away, the town clock tolled one o'clock. Plenty of time left.

There was a small group gathered outside the tavern, trying to clear away some of the snow and put up a pavilion without much success. She remembered Gaston saying something about the party being held there. The party she still planned to avoid.

Some of the shopkeepers were still around, hoping to sell a few gifts. With the last three coppers, Belle bought two woolen pairs of socks for Maurice. He always said a person could never have enough socks. She decided to see if LeBlanc's was still open, and stuffed the gifts into her basket.

"Belle! I didn't expect to see you back so soon! Did you finish Beowulf already?"

She nearly dropped the basket in surprise. M. Messier strode towards her, his lanky body swaddled in a thick cloak. "Oh! Hello, Monsieur, I was running some errands. I didn't think you'd be open, and I was just…"

"Nonsense! I always have time for you. Come in; we'll have a spot of tea and get warmed up."

Belle followed him into the bookstore, lit only by a pair of candles. She'd never thought to ask him if he actually lived here.

He seemed to read her mind. "There's a place for me in the back. It helps me to live and work in the same place," he said. "Now, about that tea…" The old man brought out a tea service, sugar lumps, and a dish of cream.

"Drink up, now, and tell me what you thought of that wonderful story."

Her hand trembled, and a few drops of hot liquid splashed out. A lump formed in her throat. "I didn't get to read it at all. I…I lost the book." She had to force herself to look at him.

"What do you mean? What happened?"

"I'm so sorry. I was on my way home, and I ran into Gaston. We had a disagreement, and he almost knocked me into the creek. When I tried to get my balance, the book fell out." Tears spilled from her cheeks into the teacup.

To her great surprise, the bookseller only smiled. "That's not your fault. You were only doing what was right. It's only a book! I'm just glad you're all right. Better a lost book than a broken leg."

Only a book? But that's what Gaston had said!

"But it was a book you gave me. I'll never get it back," protested Belle.

"Things have a way of coming around." M. Messier sipped at his own tea. "Christmas is a time for miracles, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose."

"You said you wanted a new story, didn't you?" he asked softly.

She put down the teacup. "I'd love one. My father gave me my Christmas gift early, though. Aesop's Fables. I started reading them last night."

"And I'm sure you'll enjoy them just as much as you would have Beowulf. But if you'd be willing to listen, Belle, I'd like to tell you one of my own stories."

Her eyes widened. She'd been to the little bookstore countless times since she came to Ste.-Eulalie, read almost every book M. Messier had, and yet he'd never told her a story. She picked up one of the throw pillows and hugged it to her body.

"I'd love to hear it."

"Well, then…" He paused, almost as if to search his own distant memories. He began.

"There was once a young man who lived somewhere near Auch. He was no ordinary fellow, this one: he was a great horseman, a superb swordsman, and a scholarly man. His singing voice was said to rival that of Orpheus himself. Those who knew him, and even those who did not, sung his praises and showered him with gifts.

But he ignored them all; he had no need for such things. His deeds were done only in pursuit of his true love, the Lady Catherine, whose father was a duke in that district. She was as fair as he was handsome, as kind as he was valiant, as wise as he was learned. They were a fine pair, equally matched, and infatuated with one another from the first time they met.

Now, what could prevent the two from a long and happy marriage? The lady's lover was a mere commoner, and she a noble. Such partnerships could exist only in their imaginations. Lady Catherine's father had arranged for her to marry another, a nobleman called Pierre whom she barely knew.

Of course, the young man was not about to just let his lady slip away! He knew that this Lord Pierre sometimes traveled through the area of his village. He decided to issue a challenge. A duel to be fought between two men of honor, with the prize the fair lady's hand. In that time, such a thing was quite common.

The two combatants, the nobleman and the peasant, met the next day at sunrise, each armed with a sword. Now the hero of our story was a passionate man, and his eyes narrowed in anticipation. He had to emerge victorious!

Swords clanged in that early morning; neither gave any quarter. The young man had seemingly met his match. For all his finery, Lord Pierre was his equal with a blade.

Just then, a shout caused the two swordsmen to halt in surprise! It was the lady herself, riding her palfrey towards them. Somehow she had known of their challenge, and now rode to stop it.

The young man, seeing his love, only redoubled his efforts. She was destined to be his!

The next thing he remembered, in the midst of his fury, was a scream. He was not wounded, nor had he vanquished his rival. Somehow, in the midst of it all, was Catherine, a blade thrust deep into her heart. But how? She must have stepped into the melee, only trying to stop the madness, and been impaled herself.

Lord Pierre, a look of shock on his face, removed the blade cleanly. There was naught that could be done for the lady. Our hero laid her underneath the spreading boughs of a willow, and she breathed her last.

With the woman of their contention dead, the swordsmen agreed to a draw. But the young man was not finished. Now he lived only to exact revenge upon the man who'd killed his true love. The feelings of passion in his heart had been replaced by the deepest kind of rancor. They say he was never seen or heard from again."

M. Messier turned to Belle, whose face was pale and tear-streaked. "What a tragic story! I've never heard it before," she breathed.

"You won't find it in any book. It's all true," said the bookseller.

"A true…" Belle gaped. "But how? Did you know that young man?"

"He was my father."

"Your father? But you said he was never seen nor heard from again."

M. Messier sighed deeply. It was as if the telling of the story had sapped him of his energy. "Not in that part of the country, he wasn't. Years later he married, under a different name, in a small village much like this one. No one knew him there, and he lived out the rest of his life in quiet anonymity. He made his living as a scribe for the church."

Belle put a hand on her friend's frail shoulder. "Did he tell you this story himself? He must have been a changed man in the end."

"That he was. Because, you see, the story has a brief epilogue.

My father was always a hardened soul; I didn't know why until I was already grown. But he and my mother raised me well, and shared with me a love of reading and writing. For that I'm grateful.

It was the year of my twenty-first birthday, and I was excited, for I was to travel to Paris next spring to begin university. We were celebrating Christmas. By then my father was an old man indeed, but his spirit was strong. Mother had died two years ago, so it was just the two of us.

On Christmas Eve, Father told me to wait at home, that he had a pressing errand. I wondered to myself what that could be, for it was snowing outside, and he was but a stick figure. But he insisted, so I wrapped him in my cloak and waited.

He returned before the stroke of midnight. I did not ask him where he'd been; he always kept his secrets closely guarded. But he only asked me to take him to his bed.

I laid him there; he seemed more frail than ever. That night he said to me something I'll never forget. He told me it was never too late to forgive.

Christmas came and went, and three weeks later Father was dead. Those three weeks showed me a different side of him. I took my memories of him with me to Paris, but I've never failed to remember his words to me that night."

Belle's voice was hardly a whisper. "He forgave Pierre in the end, didn't he?"

M. Messier nodded. "He had to. It's too heavy a burden to carry through life." He turned to the side so she couldn't see the tears in his own eyes. "I only wish he'd done it sooner."

The candles had burned down to a pair of stumps. Outside, the village clock struck four.

"Thank you for sharing that story with me. It must have been hard for you," said Belle, embracing her old friend.

"Merry Christmas, Belle. And don't worry about that book. As I said, I'm sure it will come back to you in some way. Now I don't want to hold you up," he said, "but I've got a Christmas dinner to prepare. I'll be seeing you soon."

She smiled warmly. "I'll see you after I finish Aesop. Then we can talk about it together."

The door closed behind her and the cold wind howled. But a new warmth spread through her entire body, and she barely felt the chill. Doubt had been replaced by sheer determination. But first, the goose…She made her way to the butcher's.

By the time she'd made it home, the only light was that of the moon and stars upon the snow. Maurice had already stoked the fire and set places for dinner. He was probably still in the workshop finishing up. Belle set the stuffed goose aside in their kitchen, then hurried upstairs to her room.

She'd only been half-truthful to Mme. Rousseau about not having a proper dress. There was one in her trunk she rarely wore. It was a pretty navy blue and cream, but at least several years out of style. She only hoped it would still fit.

A short while later Belle looked at herself in the little round mirror. The dress was nice enough, if dated. She'd simply tied back her brown hair with a navy ribbon instead of the usual sky blue. Her mother's silver earrings were gone, so she used her simpler faux-gold pair. She may not have been a head-turner, but at least she was presentable now.

"Belle?" It was her father, calling from below. "Where are you?"

"Up here, Papa," she answered.

Maurice tapped on her bedroom door. "Glad you made it home…good heavens! You're all dressed up!"

"I'm going to the Christmas Eve party, Papa. Just for a while. I've had a change of heart." She kissed him on the forehead.

"What changed your mind?"

"Just a little nudge in the right direction. I promise I'll be back before too late."

The old inventor smiled and embraced his daughter. "I'm so proud of you, Belle. And you look so beautiful. Just be careful, all right? I'll have some soup simmering if you're hungry later."

She headed off once more through the snow, more delicately this time. It was harder to walk with dainty slippers on instead of boots. Under her arm she held a wrapped package to which she'd tied the bit of parchment with Gaston's name.

The people of Ste.-Eulalie had really gone all out for Christmas decorations. From house to house, colorful lanterns were strung on wires. A wreath had been placed on every door and window. Even from where she stood, Belle could smell the wonderful scents of roast turkey and goose, hot cider, and the village Christmas tree.

It wouldn't be hard to find the party. She could hear the revelry already.

Apparently the men had succeeded in putting together the pavilion; it bustled with merry partygoers outside the tavern. She really wasn't sure what to expect. It was only her second Christmas in the village, she'd not been to last year's party, and certainly avoided places Gaston frequented.

Remember, she reminded herself, this is supposed to be fun.

A few people recognized her and waved. Everyone seemed to be in such a good mood, and she waved back. Even plump little Sophie Rousseau had found a date, in the person of Gaston's equally stout friend Lefou. They danced to an imaginary tune in the far corner of the pavilion.

Belle politely pushed past the crowd and made her way into the tavern. Her first thought was how much bigger it was than it appeared outside. She pushed down her cowl and looked all around. It was certainly a welcoming place, with its amber glass chandeliers, pine timbers everywhere, and a blazing fire. Tables had been pushed to the walls to make room for a buffet, the village band (who were currently playing a hornpipe slightly off-key) and a dance floor. Like the rest of the village, no expense had been spared in decorating for Christmas.

The whole place was a virtual shrine to Gaston, with his many hunting trophies hung on the walls and an enormous portrait mounted over the fireplace. And of course, there was the man of the hour. He was impossible to miss with every young woman in attendance, and many of the older ones, clustered around his imposing chair begging for a dance. She couldn't tell, but he seemed to be telling a bawdy joke at the moment. The Mlles. Beaulieu, closest to him, listened with rapt attention.

"May I offer you a drink, Miss Belle?" It was Frederic, the blacksmith's teenage apprentice who sometimes shod Philippe. His cheeks were already ruddy after several rounds of wine and brandy.

"Oh, yes, thank you." She curtsied. "Wassail?"

"The best! Let me pour you a cup."

Letting the warmth run through her, Belle took a seat at the closest table. The band played a waltz, and Gaston led Marcelle (or was it Musette?) onto the floor for a dance. She basked in the glow while her sisters scowled.

You have to admit, he is a sight to see. Too bad it's only skin deep. He'd traded his hunting leathers tonight for an elegant scarlet coat, vest and pants with patent leather boots that gleamed. A gold ribbon held his long black hair in place. He was as graceful on the dance floor as he was in pursuit of game; he twirled his partner around without missing a step.

Belle nervously shied her head to the side as the couple passed near her table. She'd have to wait a while to approach him. One hand strayed to her package. Still there; good. She sipped at the last of the wassail.

The dance ended and Belle tried to blend in with the spectators to avoid being seen. Everyone from outside had trickled in as the night had grown colder, and the tavern was full to bursting now. It seemed that just about every villager was here, all decked out in their holiday finery.

After a brief fanfare, Mayor Rousseau stepped up on a makeshift platform. It was easy to see where Sophie had gotten her unfortunate looks. But he was a beloved figure in town, and everyone hushed in anticipation.

"My dear ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming, and Merry Christmas. I'd like to first of all thank the Planning Committee, and for Monsieur Navarre letting us use this fine establishment." He indicated the tavern keeper, the triplets' uncle, who received a warm round of applause.

"I'd also like to thank each and every one of you who took part in the village gift exchange this year. As always, it has been a great success. You're welcome to reveal yourself now to your gift's recepient if you so choose. I'd also like to pass on Father Thibodeaux's message that Christmas Mass will be held tomorrow at eight o'clock." Everyone groaned in good humor.

"Well, then, don't let me stop you from enjoying the rest of your evening! A Merry Christmas to one and all, and a Happy New Year!" finished the mayor to more applause.

The band struck up another lively tune, and couples fell in line for a group dance. Those who didn't have partners, like herself, and the older pairs simply sat and watched. Gaston still hadn't noticed her. He'd swapped Marcelle for Melisande, and danced up a storm with her.

Belle looked over to a table next to the buffet, filled with gifts of all sizes. She glanced quickly at her own, which had cost just one silver. Gaston was already awash in presents from all his admirers. Would this one really matter so much?

It's the thought that counts. And I'm going to do more than just give him this gift tonight. She did not dance, but smiled back at friendly faces, sampled the delicious spread of food, and enjoyed watching everyone else.

Another cup of wassail, a treacle tart, and a few hours later, Belle felt her eyelids drooping. What time was it?

The crowd had thinned to a few dozen people, mostly couples still dancing in a slow circle. What had been a full table of gifts was empty save for the empty wrappings. M. Navarre had started the mass cleanup effort, and the fire had died down.

But where was Gaston?

She spied him at the far end of the tavern, slumped deep in his chair like a tiger in repose. The Beaulieus were pulling at his sleeves, trying to urge him onto the dance floor once more, but he ignored them. How was she ever going to get him alone?

Lefou and Sophie staggered in from outside, their faces flushed with merriment and brandy. "Hey, Gaston, guess what? I think Sophie's my girlfriend now!" he hollered before he tripped and fell.

Belle could not make out the response, but Gaston barely moved.

The mayor's daughter giggled. "He got me a new corset, can you imagine that? Whatever would I do with a corset?" Lefou drunkenly joined in the cacophony of laughter that followed.

Gaston had apparently heard enough. He rose from his chair without a word and strode straight out the door, leaving the rest of the crowd and the stunned Lefou in his wake.

"Was it something I said?"

Belle, seizing the opportunity, grabbed her cloak and hurried after him.

He wasn't hard to spot, even in the moonlight. She sprinted up the main street behind him, taking two strides for every one of his.

"Lefou, I'm in a really bad mood right now. So stuff it and get back!" His voice didn't sound angry, only petulant, a hurt child.

"Gaston." He pivoted, hearing Belle's voice instead of Lefou's. "May I talk to you? Alone?"

She saw how his blue eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed. "I'm not in the mood for one of your stupid speeches, either. I know, I know, I lost your book. Did you really have to overreact?" He paused for a moment. "What's with the dress?" It was as if he were noticing her for the first time.

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," said Belle.

"Well, okay, it's much nicer than that thing you normally wear, and…"

"No, not the dress." She fought a crazy urge to giggle. "I…I wanted to talk to you about last night. You see, I did overreact. It was just a book."

Gaston laughed darkly. "You're kidding, right? I thought you liked books. More than you seem to like me, anyway." He lowered his head, and seemed more like a child than before.

She reached out a hand to him. "Gaston, I don't know how to say this, but I'm not sure if I'm your type. Think about it for a moment. What do we really have in common?"

His handsome face furrowed. Thinking was not usually his forte. Then he had it. "Well, we're the best-looking couple in town, aren't we? We're perfect for each other!"

"But it doesn't always work that way," she said gently. "I like to read, and that's not something you care to do. You're always out hunting, and spending time with your friends at the tavern. And I'm not sure I'd really enjoy that."

"Why in the world would a girl want to go hunting?" he interjected. "That's just strange."

For a split second Belle thought of the Greek goddess Artemis, then decided the reference would be wasted. "What I'm trying to say is, we're really two different people. Maybe there's someone out there who's just perfect for you, or for me. I just don't think either of us would be truly happy with the other," she finished.

A grin tugged at his lips. "But I am happy when I see you."

"I can tell."

They started to walk down the now deserted street together, side by side. Trying to change the subject, Belle paused a moment outside the leatherworker's shop. "So what did you get for Christmas? It looks like just about everyone had something for you," she said.

He was taken aback. Instead of a smile lighting up his face, he scowled. "I didn't get a single gift."

It was her turn to be shocked. "What? But all those gifts, on that table!"

"Were for other people," Gaston finished for her. "I didn't even get my gift from the Christmas exchange. Some big success, huh?" He kicked at a snowbank in frustration.

"What about the Beaulieus? They didn't get you anything?" asked Belle.

The hunter snorted in disgust. "They're too busy spending dear Uncle Matthieu's money on dresses, rouge, jewelry, anything to make them prettier. Then they throw themselves at me, day after day, thinking somehow it'll be different. I mean, don't get me wrong, I do enjoy the attention…" There was the shadow of a grin once more. "But they're really not for me. How would I choose just one, for starters? Better if I just keep them as backup down at the tavern," he said.

"But you? You're pretty without having to try! The first time I saw you, I felt like I was dreaming…"

Belle blinked. Was she? Gaston was actually carrying on a civil conversation with her. No shouting, no arguing. Maybe she'd had more wassail than she remembered.

"Belle?"

Apparently he'd asked her a question. "Yes?"

"Would you like to dance?" He seemed almost shy.

Now she had to laugh. "There's no music."

"It's all right." He reached out one arm to her. "I don't bite. Come on; I'll teach you. No one dances like Gaston."

It's Christmas Eve. What's the harm in it? She took his arm and followed him onto the "dance floor."

So they danced under the moonlit sky, to the rhythm only they could hear. Belle felt the exhilaration that had been gone for so long, and let him twirl her around and around. She had no trouble keeping up; he really was a good teacher.

He does look handsome tonight, doesn't he? Probably best not to tell him. She didn't want him to get the wrong idea. Gaston was grinning now, clearly having as much fun as she was.

They finished, he in a bow and she in a curtsy. "You're really good at that," she said.

"I know." He swelled with pride, then noticed the wry look on her face. "By the way, you're pretty good yourself."

"Thank you."

Somewhere down the street, the village clock began to toll the hour. Was it eleven, or twelve? "Gaston, I probably need to be getting home. I hope Papa isn't too worried. I hadn't meant to stay out this late."

"Not to worry." His smile had vanished; he seemed a little disappointed now. "I'll walk you home. Wouldn't want you to get attacked by a wolf, or anything…"

The short walk back to the cottage was a silent one. But Belle felt the tension between them. What was it? Had she led him on? I'm just being nice to him for a change, in the Christmas spirit. He's not the one for me. He's just a boor, a selfish oaf.

But he hadn't been tonight. He'd almost been a gentleman.

They stopped in front of Belle's house. She wasn't sure what he'd do, so she quickly decided to make the first move. Reaching into her purse, she drew out the little package.

"Gaston, this is for you. I drew your name in the gift exchange," she blurted, handing it to him. "I hope you like it."

A look of sheer delight came over his face. Without a word, he ripped open the wrappings and stared at the metal object in his palm. "You got me…a pocket watch." He tried to swallow his obvious disappointment. "Well, seeing as I can barely tell time…"

Belle smiled softly. "It's not a pocket watch. Open it up and take a look."

He did. Instead of two hands, a single needle swung back and forth like a pendulum for a moment, then centered.

"It's a compass. I'd never actually seen one; I'd only read about them in stories about sea captains and explorers. The needle always points north. That way, you never lose your path. I thought you'd like it," she said. Am I actually blushing?

"Hey, pretty amazing. I do like it," Gaston said, studying the little dial and its intricate letters and degrees. He looked up, his blue eyes meeting her hazel ones. "It had to take someone really smart to think of getting me this."

Now she knew she was blushing. "Thanks. I wanted to get you something you could use. And how many pairs of antlers does one man really need?"

"I can never have enough antlers." He straightened in mock disapproval, then grinned.

Neither spoke for a moment, then both started at once. They laughed heartily as if they were children again.

"I never thought I'd say this, but I had a really good time tonight," Belle said, brushing a stray lock of hair from her forehead. Without realizing it, she looked down and saw that somehow she'd wound up holding Gaston's hand.

"I did too. You really know how to show a guy a good time," he agreed, more softly than usual.

Before he could continue, Belle squeezed his hand. "There's something else I wanted to say."

"You don't have to say anything."

Then his lips were on hers, and she did not resist. Instead, she momentarily surrendered and let him kiss her.

Dancing isn't the only thing he's good at.

The moment broke, and both looked slightly embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that," he said, studying his shiny boots.

"It's all right. I mean…" What on earth was she supposed to say? "I did have a wonderful time. Before I go inside, though, there's something I really need to tell you."

"Anything," he said.

She swallowed hard. "I needed to say how sorry I am for hurting you. I realize you think the world of me, and I'm really and truly flattered. But all those times I've said 'no' to you, I realize I hurt your feelings every time. Now that I've actually spent a little time with you, you're really better than I had expected." It wasn't the way she'd rehearsed it in her head, but it would have to do. Tears beaded at the corners of her eyes.

Gaston did not explode in anger, but took her hand in his and suavely kissed it. "Maybe there's a little more to you than reading all the time, huh? I could probably make a proper dancer out of you in time for St. Valentine's. Of course, you'd need another dress…"

One finger to his lips silenced him. "Thank you, Gaston, for a wonderful evening, and for giving me a chance to apologize. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. Maybe I can stop by the tavern next week to see some of your trophies."

He was glowing with anticipation. "You know, there's a new one in there. It's a wolf that I bagged a few weeks ago, and…"

That was the Gaston she knew. She laughed. "Don't expect me to come every night. I'll probably be back to my boring, book-reading self in a few days, and then you can get back to finding the perfect woman."

"But I already have found her."

She ducked her head self-consciously. He probably wanted another kiss. "Thanks. I'll see you soon, and Merry Christmas." Belle started up the stairs.

"How soon?" he asked.

"Soon enough."

"Good night, my sweet Belle, and the compass will be put to good use."

The door closed behind her.

Inside, only a single candle still burned. Maurice had probably long since gone to bed. Belle hummed to herself, waltzing across the floor. She didn't feel hungry, or tired, only a strange floating feeling. She couldn't put a finger on what it was.

Upstairs, she changed into her nightgown and stoked the fire. The scene outside her window was a perfect snowglobe world: a carpet of pure white under the full moon and a million stars. Nothing stirred. Pere Noel was on his way to deliver gifts to everyone.

Belle snuggled into her covers and picked up Aesop's Fables. But before she could even begin, she felt her eyelids drooping. The heavy book fell with a thump to the floor a moment later, and she dreamed of dancing through the winter sky.

"Belle! Belle, wake up!"

Oh no, am I late again?

She sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Her new book lay on the floor. Last thing she remembered, she'd been dancing.

"Belle! You have to see this!" It was Maurice, and he sounded overjoyed.

"I'm coming, Papa!"

Quickly she pulled on her cloak; it could be cold in the mornings.

Wait just a minute. It's Christmas morning!

She hurried downstairs, the thrill of anticipation building in her. Maybe Pere Noel hadn't forgotten them after all.

Maurice stood next to their tree; he wore a bright red pullover she'd never seen before. "Belle! There you are. Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas." Underneath the tree she could see at least a few gifts, and her homemade stockings bulged with more. Her father's smile stretched from ear to ear. He seemed like a young man again. "It looks like we will have a Christmas after all," she said, smiling herself.

"But that's not the best part. Come on outside, and close your eyes…"

She did, and let her father lead her by the hands. The door opened, and she felt the cold wind. Whatever could be out here?

"Now open your eyes."

Belle's jaw dropped. In front of the cottage, a wide path had already been cleared of snow behind a strange-looking contraption on wheels. It was shoveling away with its multiple flailing arms.

"Do you like it? I did get it done after all," he said, flushed with pride.

"Oh, Papa!" She hugged him with all her might. "It's terrific!"

"It's just a prototype. Give me another couple weeks and it'll really be something special. I already have Yves LeBlanc interested."

"That reminds me. I have a little something for you…"

They ducked back inside, leaving the snow-shoveling machine to its work. Belle fetched the set of wrenches from underneath the tree and handed them to her father. "I figured these would come in handy, Papa."

He unwrapped the gift and opened the wooden box. A low whistle escaped his lips. "I can really use these. But where did you find the money?"

"It doesn't matter." She could tell him later. "I wanted to get you something special this year."

Maurice dropped the wrenches for a moment. "But you are something special."

"Thanks, Papa." A tear trickled down her cheek. "Why don't we see what else Pere Noel brought us?"

Inside the stockings were the two pairs of socks and a bag of screws and bolts for Maurice, and for Belle a quill pen and some peanut brittle, her favorite. She nibbled at it while her father pulled on one of his new socks.

"How about some hot chocolate?"

"I'd love some. I'll start the kettle."

Before she could, there was a quick rap at the door, almost inaudible. Belle thought she heard the sound of footsteps scurrying away. She and her father looked at each other for a moment.

"I'll get it," she said with some surprise. Who could that be, on Christmas?

Cautiously she took down the viewer and peered through. There seemed to be no one there, so she cracked open the door. Still, no one.

A single pair of boot prints led up and down the stairs, though, and she followed them.

Only one person I know has feet that big.

At the base of the frozen waterwheel was a wrapped hamper with an enormous red bow, along with a much smaller package. There was a note attached.

Belle,

I know I can't get your book back. What I can do is try and make it up to you. This should help a little bit this winter. Hope you don't mind if I already took the antlers.

Thanks again for a great time, and for the compass.

Yours,

Gaston de Valois

P.S. My offer still stands on the dance lessons.

Clearly it had taken him a while; words were crossed out and more than a few were misspelled. But its meaning was absolutely clear. The ink was already smudged where her tears of joy had landed on the parchment.Belle looked down and saw that her hands trembled.

Still shaking, she glanced inside the hamper. Her heart leapt. There was enough prime venison for a month, along with some cured jerky in bags. There'd be no more barley and broth for a while.

And then there was the small package. That one had her name on it, in the same scrawled hand.

Inside was a copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and another brief note:

If you have to read, at least read something interesting.

"Belle?" Maurice stood in the doorway, a steaming mug in each hand. "Who was it?"

Christmas is a time for miracles, isn't it?

"Someone special, Papa," she said, barely above a whisper. "It was someone special."