Beauty and the Beast – A Modern retelling

It was initially my mother who pointed out the ruined old house, set far down deep in a valley with only a narrow stone track leading up to it. It was large, overgrown, ramshackle, and had several tumbledown outhouses with it which I surmised must have once been stables, and a coach house. How long it had been left empty, we did not know, but I was drawn to it as it sat in the valley far from our village, far from anywhere, bathed in the red-gold glow of the evening sunlight.

I took a bicycle ride there the next weekend, with my sketch pad and pencils in the handlebar basket. I hoped to make a fair few sketches of the place, shrouded as it was in the romantic history I had imagined for it. As I coasted down the two-mile long track I was further impressed by the size of the house. It was no mere farmhouse, but a grand manor, with tall windows that reflected back the sun right into my eyes, forcing me to dismount and walk the rest of the way. It didn't look all that dilapidated after all, either. Poplars lined the track, which showed signs of having once been a grand gravelled drive, and I could almost hear the carriage wheels crunching along, perhaps to a ball, or to take afternoon tea on the lawns.

I didn't go into the house, for once I arrived at the front door I realised that it possessed a rather foreboding atmosphere, but I explored the gardens to the rear – gardens that had once been fine, but had been left to grow wild and tangled. Pale tea roses scrambled up the sides of the stables and the wall of the kitchen garden, ivy smothered what the roses had not claimed, and rhododendrons sprawled across weed-ridden gravel walkways. The conifers around the long rectangular pool grew tall and irregular, their fronds waving gently in the spring morning breeze, and weeds choked the pool that already had a haze of mayflies hovering above it. I sat down beside it to listen to the sounds of the birds and the wind in the trees, which was all I could hear, the nearest road being two miles away. After a while I pulled out my sketchbook, and wandered through the gardens sketching, though I didn't feel like going near the house again.

My mother scolded me thoroughly when she found out where I'd been, but I protested that the house was deserted, that there was no-one for miles – what harm could I possibly come to ? I intended to go back and explore and sketch further, and although she argued, she agreed in the end to let me go, provided I gave a time when I would be back, and stuck to it.

I was halfway through the final painting of the house when I found out that it was not deserted after all. It was late in the evening and I knew I would be late going home, but I was desperate to catch the last rays of the golden light in my painting. I had finished just as the sun finally dipped behind the hills and the shadows lengthened, and I had just plucked a rose from the bush beside me, when I heard a voice behind me.

"That is a fine painting of my house. I should like to have it from you in return for that rose you are stealing from my garden."

Startled, I whipped round to face him. Although his voice had sounded almost in my ear, he stood a little way away, in the shadows of a poplar, so that his face was hidden from me, and his form was swathed in a long dark coat with wide skirts, such as I had always imagined the highwaymen of old to wear. I have always had an over-active and rather romantic imagination, but as he walked towards me now, the coat swinging about his long legs, I was suddenly filled with dread, not eager anticipation, and began to back away. My foot caught on a stone, and I fell backwards. I heard a sharp crack, and a ringing in my ears, and then there was nothing but blackness.

I woke to find myself lying on a large and ornate sofa, of the wooden-legged variety that Queen Victoria might have sat upon, with rose damask coverings and gold-tasselled cushions. It must have been much later, for there was a fire burning in the large tiled grate, and the drawn curtains, of heavy green velvet, showed no light through them. I looked around me in confusion and worry. The room was a large one, and most of it was shadowed, though by the light of an old-fashioned oil lamp I could see that there was an armchair and a small table by the fire, and that one wall was completely covered in bookshelves. This intrigued me, for I loved books, and I sat up with the intention of rising and going to get a closer look. I fell back with a moan of pain as I tried to stand; evidently I had hurt my ankle when I had fallen in the garden.

I held my breath in apprehension as the door opened, and my strange host entered. He approached warily, as if he thought I might bite. I confess, I certainly had thoughts of doing so, but then I realised it would not get me anywhere, for I could not run off. He held a tray in his hands, on which was set a china teapot and two porcelain cups, a cream-jug and a sugar bowl with a silver spoon; delicate things that were quite at odds with his appearance.

For he was fearsome to look at, a creature surely not of this world. His skin was pale, bloodless almost, and his hair, of a muddy brown, hung in rags down his back. He was tall, with a grim, firm-set mouth, and his nails were sharp and glassy. His eyes glowed amber in the lamplight, and they didn't seem human, at least the expression in them didn't. They looked old, ancient even, and the bitter loneliness in them sent shivers down my spine.

I wondered what kind of soul looked out from eyes like that. He set the tray on a side table, and poured dark gold tea into the cups, asking me if I would take cream, or sugar, which I did, and lots of it, though I didn't normally. I felt the sweetness might help to steady my nerves, and indeed they needed steadying, for my hands shook so much when I took my cup from him that it rattled in the saucer. He noticed, but did not look askance, as if he expected me to fear him. He took his own cup and sat in the armchair near the fire, and sipped in silence.

After a few moments I felt compelled to speak, if only to alleviate the silence, which was growing more oppressive by the second.

"Forgive me wandering in your garden," I began, "but I honestly didn't think the house was occupied. Everyone in the village told me it has been empty for years."

"You were misinformed," he replied, and sipped his tea.

I tried again.

"It certainly looks deserted. The garden's overgrown and there are weeds in the path."

"So you thought that one more rose plucked from my bushes would make no difference ?" His voice held an undercurrent of anger, and I felt afraid.

"What has a rose to do with it ? Is this about the rose ? Are you keeping me prisoner because of a silly rose ?" I demanded, beginning to lose patience. But then a wave of fear washed over me, as I realised that he might indeed mean to keep me captive here and there would be nothing I could do about it. I could hardly escape and run the four miles back to my village, not with a bad ankle. I had also began to get a headache, brought on partly by the knock on the head I had got when I fell, and partly by his attitude, which struck me as peculiarly obnoxious for one who had served me a cream tea in a porcelain cup.

"This has nought to do with my rose," he said, rising to refill my cup. His movements were graceful and languid, though I could not help but stare at his nails as he handed me my second cup of sweet tea. They looked very much like claws to me. "I have watched you every day you have been here, painting my house. Do you like it so much ?"

I started at that. He had watched me ? I had thought that the house had a watchful air about it, as if something not entirely friendly looked out at me, but I had dismissed those thoughts as mere fancy at the time. A terrible suspicion began to dawn on me.

"How long have you been here ?" I asked him.

He smiled, and I swallowed a scream. His eye teeth were long and sharp. I began to panic then, sure that he was a monster and meant to eat me, despite his sweet tea and his fine china.

"What are you ?" I stammered, eyes wide. He backed off, and returned to his seat, perhaps to try and reassure me. But I wasn't to be reassured. I rose, and gritted my teeth as my ankle protested.

"I thank you for your hospitality, but I need to go now," I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking, "my mother will be wondering where I am and will come looking for me, I must be hours late by now and she knows I come here."

"If you mean to frighten me with your mother, then you have not succeeded," he chuckled, watching me with amusement from his chair. I glowered at him.

"Well, fine, but you won't get away with eating me, she'll find out and call the police," I said sulkily, all too aware of how silly that sounded. He proved it by laughing out loud.

"Eat you ?" he grinned, "what makes you think I want to eat you ?"

"Well, you're a vampire," I pointed out, sure that was indeed what he was. "Aren't you ?"

"No. I am no vampire."

"Well !" I crowed in triumph, "you're a werewolf then ! Werewolves eat people too ! But you won't eat me !" and with that I started to hobble painfully to the door.

He moved so fast, he was between me and the door before I could draw another breath. I turned back into the room, and my ankle gave way beneath me, and I would have gone down, but he caught me by the arm, and gently guided me back to the sofa. His hands were strong, though he held me in a gentle grip. I noticed a light covering of downy brown fur that came from under his shirt cuffs and petered out over his wrists.

"Sit down," he chided, "you needn't worry that I am going to eat you, because I am not. Had I thoughts in that direction, I would have done it before now, and saved myself some cream and sugar." This time his smile was kinder, not so menacing as I had first thought it was. I glared at him, and folded my arms.

"That still leaves my mother," I reminded him, "she will be along any moment now."

"She will not," he told me, "she will not be able to find her way here. Nobody can, if I do not wish it."

"I found it," I pointed out. He nodded agreement.

"Because I let you," he said. I sighed, and looked miserably at him. Amber eyes stared back at me, fathomless, and haunted.

"If not a werewolf, or a vampire, what ?" I asked. I didn't like anything I couldn't put a name to, though I was not sure in this case that knowing what this creature was would help me much. He stirred up the dying fire with a large ornate poker that wriggled and squeaked in his hands, and placed another log carefully on it. He sat back and gazed into the new flames for a moment before answering.

"I was a man, once," he said quietly, "a long time ago. Two hundred and thirty years, to be precise. A young man."

"What happened ?" I asked warily, thinking he was pulling my leg, but going along with him all the same, since there wasn't much else I could do.

"An enchantment was cast upon me, for my sins, which I am ashamed to admit were plenty, and dire. I was handsome too, or at least I, and many maidens, considered me so. So that was what was taken from me, along with all society, as the things I loved best. No human would come near me, no beast would let me near it. I loved hunting, but no horse would carry me. I loved hawking, but no hawk would suffer my hand. And now, what you see is what I am."

"Oh, come now !" I scoffed, certain now that he was pulling my leg, "you expect me to believe that ? You were evil so a fairy cast a spell on you and now you're over two hundred years old ? I'll have you know I am seventeen years old, not seven ! I don't believe a word you just told me !"

He turned from the fire to scowl at me, and I quailed. He looked very

fearsome indeed when he scowled. I liked his smile better than his scowl, I decided, sharp pointed teeth notwithstanding.

"Do you believe your own eyes ?" he asked me.

"Of course !" I said indignantly.

"And what do you see when you look at me ?"

"I see a man - with some peculiarities, certainly, but a man nonetheless."

"Five minutes ago you saw a monster whom you were certain intended to eat you."

I did have the decency to look embarrassed at that, but I stuck my nose in the air and refused to answer. I did still want to know what he intended to do with me, if he was not going to eat me, though.

"The enchantment can be broken," he said, and watched my reaction carefully. I rolled my eyes.

"Of course it can ! Let me guess – by a wise and beautiful maiden who fulfils a certain perilous test and gives you her heart ?"

He looked hurt at the sarcasm.

"Some of that is true, Beauty."

I gawped at him. I couldn't decide whether I was more outraged at the fact that he still expected me to believe him, or the fact that he had called me "Beauty". I didn't think too much of my looks, though I did have admirers, none of whom I admired back, however. I certainly didn't feel all that beautiful right at that moment, not with the bruise I was certain to have, and my scruffy painting clothes – a pair of frayed and faded old jeans cut off at the knee, and a tattered cardigan that had seen better days even before I'd commandeered it for artwork and country scramblings. And my knees, visible under the frayed hem of my jeans, were scabbed and grass-stained. I didn't feel I was fit to sit on the beautiful sofa and drink tea from delicate china. I hated him for bringing it up, and I rose again, to leave.

"Where are you going this time ?" he asked.

"Home ! I told you, it's way past time for me to be back home, my mother will be having kittens ! Besides, I don't like being mocked."

"I did not mock you. I meant it when I called you Beauty, for you are beautiful. Stay with me a little longer, stay for dinner," he said.

"No, I can't, really, I have to go back now." I shook my head stubbornly.

"Your mother will be driving around the country lanes, lost, until I let her find the way home again," he said, "she will not know that you stayed a little longer to eat dinner with me." He rang a little silver bell, and the door breezed open, letting in a whole procession of crockery and silverware. I nearly fainted again at the sight. There was a tureen of hot soup thick with swirls of cream, there was a platter of succulent roast beef, followed closely by a canteen of thick red wine gravy and a dish of crisp roast potatoes; there were steamed garden vegetables, a tray with two cut crystal glasses and a carafe of fine deep red wine, and napkins and a crisp linen tablecloth, which spread itself on the table with a lavender-scented flourish that had an attitude of cheek to it, if tablecloths could be said to have attitude. The small table that was set a little to the other side of the fire quickly laid itself, and two wooden armchairs with gold brocade cushions scuttled up to await us. He gestured me to the table, and with a sigh of resignation, I sat. I was reluctant to eat, being well mindful of the faery tales I had read as a child that always warned against eating the food of Faerie ( for all I knew, that was what he was ) but after the first delicious mouthful I set to in earnest. I was very hungry, not having eaten since my sandwich at lunch, and the dishes presented to me were tasty enough for me to forget my apprehension and think of nothing but my stomach. He did not eat with me, but sipped at his wine and watched me enjoy my fine dinner.

Afterwards, he drove me home, in a black Bentley that shone like a mirror, though I could scarcely believe he could drive.

"And why not ?" he asked, "Beauty, just because society shuns me, and I it, does not mean I cannot learn the ways of the modern world as well as anyone else who lives in it."

I had no answer for that, but found myself fascinated with the way his strong hands looked on the wheel. I couldn't drive, and loved men who could. Truth be told, I thought it very attractive, the sight of a man's hands on the wheel of a car, and this man's hands were no exception, despite the nails that looked very like claws.

"Promise me you will eat dinner with me again," he said as he pulled up outside my house. I thought for a moment.

"I don't think I'll be allowed back," I said, only half regretfully. He reached out to touch my hand, briefly, drawing back before I could flinch, though I suppressed a shudder at his touch.

"Your painting needs finishing, and giving to me," he reminded me.

"Giving to you ?"

"In exchange for the rose you took." He produced that rose now, and dropped it into my lap. It looked as alive as ever, though it had not been in water since it had been plucked, several hours ago now. Its petals felt like velvet to me. I nodded.

"I will come back, and eat dinner with you," I said, though it was not a promise I intended to keep. He must have known that, for his eyes were suddenly sad, yet he unlocked the doors and let me out, bidding me a courteous good night, and expressed the hope that my return visit might be soon.

I felt like a traitor as I let myself in, for I knew that even if I had intended to go back to the house, my mother would never let me out of her sight again.

The rose sat on my dresser, as fresh as when I had plucked it more than a week ago. It was not in water, but lay where I had carelessly flung it. I frowned at it, and I frowned at the unfinished painting of the house. I had not touched it since the last time I had been there, and been caught by the house's strange master. I had not wanted to, though my mother had not said anything to me, as he had said she would not. She had looked up from her TV programme as I'd entered, and asked me if I'd had a good day. I had not told her about the rose, or the fine dinner, or indeed that the house was in fact occupied. I had been, for the past week, perfectly happy to stay away from that house, but now, as my painting caught my eye from where it sat on my shelf, and the rose's fragrance filled the room, I was filled with a desire to return. I decided that if I left there early enough, before the sun started to set, then I would not run into the strange man again, since I hadn't seen him until twilight the last time. I didn't particularly want to eat dinner with him again, and I didn't want to drive home with him again either. I shuddered when I thought of his strange amber eyes, and the way they had glowed with hope as he looked at me in the light of the oil lamps in his ornate study.

I made short work of the cycle ride to the house, even though most of the way was uphill before the long coast down the old track into the valley. The house seemed warmer when I reached it, as if it welcomed me, the early morning sun glinting off the windows as if they were winking at me.

"Hello again," I muttered, wheeling my bike round to the stables where I propped it against a door frame. I unloaded the basket that I had filled with my lunch, bottled water, and my paints, and took them, with the painting tucked under my arm, to the point I sat to paint.

I hadn't got much farther than a few half-hearted daubs when he appeared at my side. I glared at him, startled by his sudden appearance, and scolded him for his lack of warning.

"I am sorry, Beauty," he said, "it was not my intention to startle you."

"I could have ruined the painting !" I snapped, "couldn't you have warned me or something ?"

I turned irritably back to my painting, and he sat cross-legged on the grass, just a little to one side of me so that I kept catching glimpses of him from the corner of my eye. It began to get on my nerves, and I set down my brush and palette with a sigh of exasperation, and turned to look at him.

He was not watching me, but sat gazing out across the wide expanse of lawn to the line of trees at the far end, under which several rose bushes grew, all of them yellow, winking like gold in the sunlight. I took the opportunity to have a good long look at him. His hair, that had seemed to me to be a dull brown before, glowed a dark red in the late morning sun, though it still hung in tangled rags to his waist, tied roughly out of the way with a black silk ribbon. His skin seemed to be pale gold in the sun, and the light breeze ruffled the downy fur on his arms, exposed where he had rolled his sleeves up a little. I could see, even in the strangeness of his face, that once he had been a very handsome man. I looked at his strong, large hands and found myself wondering what he did all day.

He turned back to look at me, his amber eyes unreadable. I could not look away.

"I am very ugly, Beauty; you do not need to say it," he said eventually. I scowled.

"Not ugly, as such," I protested, annoyed with him for making me say this, "just very, er, odd looking. I did think you were a vampire at first," I reminded him with a wry smile, which he answered with a rather warmer one of his own, showing the sharp white eye teeth in the process and bringing me back to earth with a shock. I did not think I would ever get used to those teeth, even if I managed to overlook the eyes and the claws, the teeth unnerved me. His smile turned wistful as he rose, and said it was time to take some lunch.

"Will you join me, Beauty ?" he asked. I nodded; I had brought my lunch with me but the lunch I was bound to be served here would be far tastier. He offered me his arm, and I took it after a moment's hesitation. I was rather surprised to find he felt no stranger than any man, despite his looks.

"You should comb your hair," I chided him, not wanting him to think he was making any progress with me. He looked down at me – I only came up to his shoulder – and raised an eyebrow.

"Should I ?"

"You should," I told him firmly, "look at it ! It's full of tangles. Worse than your garden. Why don't you keep a gardener ?"

"I would not want any gardener in my garden. I like my solitude."

"But couldn't you just, you know…." I waved my hand in a vague gesture, indicating that I thought he ought to be able to keep his garden neat by using magic. His eyebrow shot up even further.

"You've got magic plates," I mumbled, feeling like a silly five-year old again. Magic plates ? I thought sourly. How silly. He laughed, and the sound startled me, for I hadn't heard him laugh yet. I wasn't sure I liked it actually. It was a deep rumble in his chest, with a hint of a bark in it, rough and not entirely pleasant. Worse still, he was laughing at me. That, I really had a problem with.

"Beauty, you are right," he said, his voice solemn, though mirth still sparkled in his eyes, "if I wished it, this garden would be as fine and grand as it once was. But I prefer it wild. That way, people believe my house and lands are deserted. I do not like visitors."

"But you like me," I said, puzzled, "you let me come here."

"Yes, and I hope you will visit often," he agreed, "but you are the only one. I would want no-one else to trespass here."

"Why me ?" I asked, perplexed. What on earth is so special about me ? I wondered.

"Because, Beauty, you are an artist, and you therefore always look for the beauty in everything. And I envy you your talent. Now," here he stood aside for me to enter the house through the side door that had swung bouncily open at our approach, "lunch will be laid in the Orangery. I think you will like it in there."

The rose was still sparkly fresh on my dresser when I finally arrived home, having been driven again, not in the Bentley but in an ancient old fashioned Ford that didn't want to go much faster than I could have cycled but was fun to ride in nonetheless. He had a whole fleet of cars, mostly from the motoring heyday, though there was one more modern car, a 1966 Jaguar in pale silver with black leather seats. I felt that if he offered me a ride in that, it would be akin to a proposition, and not an entirely appropriate one either. It lurked in the garage with a decidedly flirtatious air, sleek and very sure of itself.

He'd extracted another promise from me to visit again, and this time I realised I meant to keep it. I picked the rose up and sniffed it, finding its fragrance as sweet as ever. I wondered if my painting of the house was a fair trade for something as beautiful as the rose. I sat down to paint it, though I knew I could never do the jewel-like petals justice with mere paint and canvas.

By the early hours, it was finished, though I had not realised the time, being far engrossed in the painting. It was a pleasing enough painting, and I resolved to gift it to the master of the house. I could not have said why I was so anxious for him to have it, but I went to sleep eager for the next weekend to come so that I could visit him again.

My mother collared me as soon as I came in from school that evening, wearing a knowing smile on her face and a freshly-pressed apron. There was a smell of something delicious cooking, and my stomach rumbled.

"There's a young man to see you," she smirked, "good-looking sort, very polite. Jay, his name is, from your school ?"

"Oh God, not him !" I groaned, "what does he want ?"

He answered my question himself, from the living room doorway, which he was leaning indolently against. Good looking ? I thought he just looked arrogant, but my mother's taste in men was questionable, as she had proved by marrying my father, who had run off with another woman two years after I was born, which was rather sooner after the wedding than was generally considered decent. But if she liked Jay, her taste was even worse than I'd thought.

"Wanna go to the Hallowe'en party with me ?" he asked. His attitude said that he thought my answer was a given, that his asking was merely a courtesy. "I've got my Dad's Porsche for the night, and I'll get you a corsage."

"No thanks," I muttered, elbowing past him into the living room. He followed me at a leisurely pace, his hands in his pockets. He didn't seem bothered by my refusal, if indeed he'd heard it. He carried on as if he hadn't, at any rate.

"Dad says I can take the car out this Saturday as well, I thought you'd like to go for a ride in it, it's a convertible."

"I don't care if it's a pumpkin turned into a golden coach with six white horses," I growled, "I'm not going."

"Oh, now come on," interrupted my mother, "it will do you good to get out a bit, go on a date or two…"

"A date !" I cried, horrified. Jay chuckled.

"Sure," he grinned, "it'll be fun. I'll pick you up at about 10am ? Bring a picnic !"

"Bring your own picnic !" I snapped back, glaring at my mother.

"Go with him," she told me firmly, convinced I was only refusing the arrogant boy because I was embarrassed to be getting a date. I shook my head.

"I can't," I said, "I'm busy that day."

"Well at least go to the party with him, he's come all the way over here to ask you."

"I'm busy that day too."

"Doing what ?" she laughed, flinging her hands wide, as if the very thought of little old me having any plans two months in the future, or any plans at all, was ludicrous. Normally, I have to admit, it was. But I found myself wanting to return to the house and its master as soon as possible. Saturday couldn't come fast enough.

"He wouldn't take no for an answer !" I wailed, as we sat in the Orangery drinking tea. It had begun raining not long after I'd arrived, so sitting outdoors was not possible. The roof of the beautiful Orangery rang with the pitter-patter of the raindrops. It was still quite warm in there despite the rain, and the view across the lawn was one of my favourites. My host poured more tea, my third cup.

"Do you prefer my company to his, then ?" he asked. I snorted, and nearly inhaled my tea in the process.

"I'd prefer anybody's company to his," I said, wiping tea off my chin. He regarded me solemnly, and I wondered if I'd hurt him. I hadn't meant to.

"He must be a particularly obnoxious specimen of a young man," he observed, a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his firm mouth. I shrugged.

"He tried to tempt me with his father's Porsche," I said scornfully. "As if I'm so shallow as all that ! I told him I didn't care if he had a golden coach with six white horses, I still wouldn't go with him."

"And if I had a golden coach and six white horses ?" he asked.

I stared at him. "I've ridden in your cars," I reminded him, puzzled. I wasn't quite sure what he was getting at, and I wasn't sure I wanted to know.

"Not all of them," he smiled gently, and then I knew what was coming next.

"Oh, no," I laughed ruefully, "no you don't ! I am not riding in the Jaguar with you !"

"And why not ?" he asked. "It's a fine car, finer than the others. Faster, too."

"Well, it's, it's…er…" I began, turning red. I was beginning to wish I'd spent the day with Jay after all, at least he was fairly easy to deal with. This man ran rings round me.

"It's what ?" he prompted. The look in his eyes was one of amusement. I didn't like being laughed at. Least of all by him.

"It's sexy !" I flung at him, "it's a car for a date ! Not a car to be giving lifts to schoolgirls because they've stayed too late to make their own way home !"

"Beauty, I do not see you as a schoolgirl," he said. Oh, God. Why hadn't I seen this coming ? I'd walked straight into his cleverly baited trap with my eyes tight shut. I rose, and set my teacup down on the little oak coffee table. It was carved with tiny leaves and dryads, and even they seemed to be laughing at me.

"I think the rain's stopping," I said, but he shook his head.

"Beauty," he chided me gently, "you have nothing to fear from me. You need not run from me."

Tears pricked behind my eyes. I was not running ! I hated being laughed at, and I hated him for laughing at me. Couldn't he, or any male for that matter, sit and drink tea with me without trying to lure me into their horrid cars ? I thought bitterly. I gathered up the painting I had brought him, and held it out to him.

"I painted the rose for you," I sniffed, wondering if he deserved it. He unwrapped the newspaper from it, and held it at arm's length to look at it.

"Why ?" he asked.

"Because it was beautiful," I said, as if this should be obvious.

"It is, the painting and the rose both," he replied, "but that is not what I meant. I meant, why give this to me ?"

That too was obvious, I thought, at least it was to me. I answered him anyway.

"In return for the rose," I said, "it hasn't faded at all. I thought it was special."

"And it is," he smiled, propping the painting up behind the teapot, against the wall. "But it was given to you in payment for the other painting you did. There is no need therefore to pay me for the rose."

"If you don't want it I'll have it back !" I flared, offended. I thought I had just about had enough of him for one day. It was time to go. I didn't even care if I found Jay waiting for me when I got home.

"Take me home," I ordered. He looked stricken.

"Why, Beauty, we have not even had lunch," he protested, bewildered at my sudden temper.

"I don't want to have lunch with you !" I shouted. I sounded like a petulant child, even in my own ears. He sighed sadly, and nodded.

"I will take you home," he said, resigned to my bad mood.

I found Jay waiting for me in the kitchen, chattering away to my mother and making her fall more in love with him by the minute, which I found frankly disgusting, but I was still angry, and in my anger I accepted Jay's invitation to the Hallowe'en party.

"What will you go as ?" he asked, genuinely interested.

"A werewolf," I replied, "all I'll need is some of those fake hairy hands and some yellow contacts. Should be easy. What about you ?" Not that I care, I thought.

"I thought we'd go as Beauty and the Beast," he said, proudly, as if it were the best idea in the world. I hated it, and said so. He laughed, and reached out to ruffle my hair, an arrogantly patronising gesture that would have got him slapped if my mother had not been there too. I didn't want to sit through one of her lectures on appropriate behaviour. I was not about to revoke my acceptance though. He was a better choice than the beastly man at the house. He might be patronising and arrogant, he might think himself God's gift to women, but at least when I shouted at him he did not get that awful hurt look in his eyes, making me feel like an executioner.

I did not return to the house for several weeks, partly because the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and partly because I just didn't want to. I was not sure I trusted the man who lived there any more, and I wondered indeed if I'd ever trusted him properly anyway. The fact that he had behaved like a perfect gentleman did nothing to temper my distrust; a beast lurked under that polite and cultured exterior, and I knew it.

If I'm honest, I was as afraid of him as I had been the first time I'd met him.

September came and went, followed hot on her heels by October, and the spell of bad weather continued and then got worse, just in time for Hallowe'en. I've never minded rain, but it becomes unbearable when it's mixed with hail or sleet – or in this case, both, perhaps; I wasn't sure exactly what it was doing and I didn't think it knew either. My costume consisted, at my friend Claire's insistence, of a flimsy fairy outfit, complete with the wings we'd made on a rainy Saturday. Mine were lopsided and haphazard, made from purple tights stretched over an uneven wire frame, but hers were perfect. Like her hair, and her make up. I gritted my teeth when I saw her. She was my best friend, but there were times when I entertained fantasies of throwing her off the nearest bridge. Like now, and like when I'd found out that Jay had only asked me out when she'd blown him off. I thought of the only other man who had ever shown any interest in me, and wondered if he too would prefer Claire's fiery beauty to my plain brown looks. It was not the first time I'd thought of him these last few weeks, and I was becoming increasingly annoyed about it – and increasingly aware that I missed him. I wasn't impressed by that realisation. I pushed him from my mind, however, as we entered the house where the party was being held, festooned with decorations in the form of Jack-o-Lanterns, fake cobwebs ( I was pleased to note the lack of fake spiders ), inflatable skeletons, and something ghoulish-looking hanging from the ceiling which on closer examination turned out to be a severed head, inexpertly made out of papier mache and covered with ketchup. Jay and several other boys were standing under it attempting to knock it down by throwing jelly eyeballs at it, a pastime that looked highly amusing, I'm sure. I sniffed disdainfully as I watched them, hoping they wouldn't notice me in my horrible purple wings, but they did, predictably, and Jay sauntered over to me with the sound of his mates' sniggering following him.

"Nice outfit," he smiled, with only a hint of a sneer, "did you make it yourself ?"

"Of course I did, that's the whole point of costumes," I shot back, and was rewarded with a look of chagrin on his face. If he'd expected me to look embarrassed then he was wrong. I was about to stick my nose in the air again when he laughed ruefully.

"I meant it, it's pretty good," he said, taking my hand and leading me towards the kitchen, "want a drink ? We managed to sneak in some gin to go in the punch, but don't tell anyone !"

I glared at him. " I hope you know just how irresponsible it is, spiking drinks !" I hissed, but he dismissed that with a snort.

"Everyone here knows; I meant, don't tell any adults," he said, as if I was thick. I poked my tongue out at him and took the glass of fruit punch, spiked with gin, from his hand. His fingers brushed mine as I did so, and I felt a little thrill shiver up my arm and set my heart pounding. Just a little. I certainly wasn't about to fall for him, but I couldn't help thinking that perhaps he was quite good looking after all. At that thought, another popped into my head, of that other man who seemed to manage to annoy me on a regular basis. I shook my head to free it from both thoughts, and endeavoured to escape Jay, but he held on to my hand firmly, and drew me back into the living room where some kind of raucous game involving couples, apples, and a barrel full of water, most of which seemed to be going all over the carpet, was going on. I didn't think the owners of the house would be impressed, but Claire informed me, with the little roll of her eyes that said she couldn't understand why I was worrying about something that was not my business, that the owners were away for another week and that was plenty of time in which to clean up in.

I found myself in due course bending over the barrel with both hands held behind my back, and Jay on the opposite side with a cheeky grin on his face as we waited through the countdown. I didn't want to play, but I wasn't being given any choice, so I submitted as cheerfully as possible, which wasn't very. I have never been one for parties, and I wanted to go home, having had enough of this one.

Jay won the game, having played it with a good deal more enthusiasm than I had, and claimed his prize.

It turned out to be a kiss, from me. Since the first one didn't go the way he'd planned, he tried a second, and then a third, until the party-goers around us were cheering him on and I was desperate to escape. He let me go only after he'd worn me down to submitting to him, and then he dropped me, turned around to bow to his audience and then flung his hands in the air with a great whoop of victory. My face burned.

"Ten out of ten ?" teased one of the young men I'd seen on first entering the house. His friends laughed. Jay shook his head.

"She's frigid," he chuckled, "I give her three out of ten !"

That was it. I flung the contents of my glass at him, and then the glass itself, barely hearing his outraged cry through the red mist pounding through my head.

"You pig !" I shrieked at him, amid cruel laughter. Not even Claire came to rescue me from this one. Fighting back tears, I fled that horrible party, and stormed along the road back home.

But it was not home that I found myself at, by the time I had calmed down enough to slow down and take stock of where I was. The rain had abated sometime during my mad dash along the lanes, and now the moon was out, showing clearly the track down into the valley, where I could see the house half hidden behind the rows of poplars lining the approach. One light was flickering in a ground-floor window, the one I knew to be the library. My first thought was to turn back, but then the moon disappeared behind a cloud, and it began to rain again.

I sighed, and started down the track, shivering in my flimsy wet costume and picking my way gingerly among the stones, which hurt my feet in their delicate shoes.

He looked at me sadly when I arrived limping and shivering at a side door near the library.

"Beauty," he said, drawing me inside out of the rain, "what has happened ?"

I stood on his polished wooden floor, and burst into tears, a puddle of rainwater forming at my feet. He watched me warily, clearly not having the faintest clue how to deal with a young woman wearing a sopping wet fairy costume and crying like a child. He reached out for me eventually, and gave me a little shake, enough to make me stop wailing for a moment. I stood there snivelling and shivering. He led me into the library and stood me in front of the fire where I promptly began to steam, and handed me a cup of hot spiced brandy that had trooped in by itself at his command. I sipped, and then ran outside again, to throw up in the patch of thyme that grew in a tub just outside the door. He followed me, and held my head while I puked. I didn't give a crap about the indignity right at that minute, and there wasn't anything I could have done about it anyway. Finally finished, and feeling thoroughly wretched, I raised my head and looked him right in the eyes, daring him to laugh, or scold. I saw nothing but kindness and concern in those amber depths as he lifted me up by the waist and set me on my feet again. I followed him back inside and hurried back to the fire while he sent for some hot coffee instead, and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. He sat in his chair, and regarded me steadily as I continued steaming in front of the fire. I suddenly became aware of the fact that my costume, wet as it was, clung to my body and left very little to the imagination. I clutched the blanket tighter around me.

"What ?" I demanded defensively as he continued to wait patiently for an explanation. I wasn't going to give it without a fight though. I was certain he'd only laugh.

"What has happened, Beauty ?" he asked again, "you haven't visited me for two months, and now you come here in the middle of the night, half dressed, drunk and soaked to the skin, and make no effort to tell me why ?"

At his gentle tone, I found myself fighting tears again. I shook my head to get rid of them, and told him about the party, all of it, even the kiss from the horrible, insufferable Jay, at which point I couldn't stop the tears. I found a stool near my feet, and sat on it gratefully, blowing loudly into the handkerchief that waved itself in front of my face.

"I hate men !" I declared, once the storm of crying had passed.

"Not all men are worth considering as such," he told me.

"Huh ! I can't think of any at all !"

"You will find one day that there are plenty," he told me severely, "but they do not all wear the faces of angels."

"Not even after too much drink ?" I asked him ruefully, and he laughed.

"Not even then !" he rang a little silver bell, and in only a few moments a tray of hot tea and fruitcake arrived. He served me himself, as he had the first time I'd met him, but my stomach was still tender and I managed to only nibble at the cake.

We discovered that the storm had got much worse when we went out to the car, and most of the track was now in severe danger of being flooded. I grimaced at it, and said I didn't need to be back that night.

"Claire thinks I've gone home, and my mother thinks I'm staying with Claire," I told him. If I'm honest, it wasn't so much the storm that prevented me from wanting to go home just yet, but the reluctance to return to the real world, where I'd have to face the prospect of school on Monday morning, and with it the derision my classmates were probably dying to bestow upon me.

"I will take you home in the morning," he agreed, as if he understood.

The chamber that he showed me to was beyond beautiful, and much too fine for the likes of me. I said so, but he smiled and gave me a gentle push over the threshold and bid me goodnight.

I looked around my room. You could have fit at least four rooms the size of my bedroom at home in there, with room for an on-suite, which on closer inspection this did not have. One wall was taken up almost entirely by the massive sash windows, swathed in acres of heavy red brocade, and along another wall was a chaise-longue and a dressing table, with a cut-crystal carafe and a solid gold comb-and-brush set. But it was the bed that really awed me. It was a four poster, naturally, made of solid oak that was dark with age, and carved with fantastical creatures. Unicorns frolicked with angels, and gryphons sat down to tea with faeries, and among them all danced sylphs and dryads, nymphs and salamanders, twined round and round with oak leaves and ivy. The drapes were of several layers of the finest silk gauze in white and gold and blue, held back with a thick rope of gold thread. I fingered it wonderingly as I climbed between white-and-gold patterned silk and linen sheets. This bed – this whole room – belonged to a princess, I thought, and I was almost ashamed that it was only little old me who slept there that night.

I woke in the middle of the night needing a drink, and I crossed the moonlit floor to the dressing table where the crystal carafe was. The house was silent and still, almost eerily so, and I went to look out of the window. The storm had completely passed, and a gentle breeze waved the poplars about and rippled the puddles on the track, but there was a figure walking along that track, away from the house. I recognised him as the master of the house, but he was bare to the waist, his chest covered in the same fine brown fuzz that was on his arms. He carried something in his hand, but what, I couldn't see, but he was stumbling somewhat on the stony path, his feet as bare as the rest of his body. Frowning, I tried to open the window to call out, thinking perhaps he was sleep walking, but it would not budge – nailed shut, I found, upon looking for a bolt. I tried my door, but that too stuck fast, and I began to haul at the doorknob, my nails scrabbling on the wood in panic as I realised I was locked in. I banged on the door with my fists and yelled in desperation, until they felt bruised and sore, and I sank down upon the floor in despair and anger, tears of frustration coursing down my cheeks.

I must have fallen asleep there, for the next thing I knew, the pale grey light of dawn was filtering through the windows. I began to get stiffly to my feet, when there was a polite knock on the door. I froze, remembering what I had seen last night, and that I had been locked in.

"Go away !" I yelled.

"Beauty, it is ten o'clock, and time for breakfast," he replied, his tone puzzled, unaware of the night I had spent.

"Breakfast ?" I said incredulously, "you expect me to eat breakfast with you after you locked me in ? You can go to hell !"

There was a deep sigh, and he cleared his throat to try again. I cut him off however, and began a tirade against him.

"You locked me in, with no warning you were going to do so, and then you were wandering about outside half dressed, what on earth had you been doing or don't I want to know, and then you come here without so much as an apology and demand I come out and eat breakfast with you, you could be a psychopathic murderer for all I know and I'm never coming here again !"

He listened patiently to that diatribe, and sighed again when I'd finished, an even heavier sigh than before.

"I could not have warned you, and I was intending that you sleep all night and be none the wiser," he said, "it would pain me to be denied your company, Beauty. I have missed you these past two months."

"Well what do you expect ?" I demanded.

"I expect nothing," he replied, "I only hope, that is all. Will you come out now ?"

"No."

"Please, Beauty."

"No ! Not until you explain what you were doing last night."

Another sigh, this time with a hint of exasperation in it. Good ! Let him be frustrated for a change, I thought angrily.

"I cannot," he growled impatiently. A prickling of fear ran up my spine at his tone; he was clearly beginning to lose his temper. It occurred to me that I had never seen him do this. I didn't really want to, either. I turned the door handle, and jumped back in surprise when it sprang open.

He stood there on the hall carpet, dressed in a loose shirt of grey silk, and looking no different to how he usually did, except for the gleam of annoyance in his amber eyes. He held his hand out for mine, but I slapped it away indignantly.

"Don't push your luck," I muttered sulkily at him, and strode down the hall without him.

Over breakfast, I demanded again to know what he had been up to, wandering about his estate half naked, and in the middle of the night. And again, he refused to tell me.

"I must not tell you. And you would not understand," he told me, his eyes miserable.

"Try me," I persisted, rather recklessly. A little voice in my head was telling me that I did not want to know what he had been doing, but curiosity killed the cat and all that. I wanted to know more than I didn't.

"We've known each other a while now," I continued, "I thought we were friends, and friends don't keep secrets." Underhand, I know, but he wasn't playing the way I wanted anyway, so he deserved it. He glared at me.

"Blackmail will not work, Beauty !" he scolded me, "I will not tell you until I am ready to, and let that be an end to it !"

I slumped back in my seat, hurt. I could not imagine what he could have been doing that was so awful he didn't want to tell me about it, but I wasn't stupid enough to press the issue. I could tell that his temper was starting to fray. He reached out to touch my hand to reassure me, and for once I didn't flinch away. I realised how much of a refuge he and his house had been the night before, and once again I was reluctant to leave. But as soon as breakfast was cleared away, he drove me home. I was rather disappointed with that; I had hoped to spend what was left of the morning with him in his library, which was of particular interest to me as he was a great collector of books and had some rare and beautiful ones on his shelves. But he seemed almost eager to be rid of me that day, whereas on all the other occasions I had visited him he had begged me to stay longer.

"Don't leave it another two months before your next visit, Beauty," he smiled at me as he pulled up outside my house. I shook my head.

"I won't," I said, "I'll be along on Saturday, weather permitting."

"Come anyway," he said, "a little rain won't hurt you."

I laughed at that, thinking of the previous night and my five mile walk in a storm wearing only a little fairy costume and stupid shoes. He handed me another rose then, a pink one, not quite properly opened out. It had the sweetest scent, and its petals looked like silk, transparent and delicate.

"A girl should always have flowers," he smiled, "this one may bring you luck."

He was right, there were worse things than rain.

One of them was Jay. He was in the kitchen again, chatting up my mother and clearly waiting for me to get in so that he could drop me in it. Claire was with him, wearing a very insincere expression of concern on her face.

"Where on earth have you been !" began my mother as soon as I appeared. Uh-oh. Now I'd have to come up with something pretty damn fast, or admit to the existence of my friend at the house. I didn't think that would go down too well. I hid the rose behind my back, realised that would only draw attention to it, and went to put it in water.

"You left the party so suddenly, I assumed you were angry with me too, and I came over today to see why," said Claire, looking me up and down curiously. I was dressed again in the costume, though it was crumpled and splattered with mud. I hugged my arms round myself in an attempt to hide as much of the dratted thing as possible, all too aware of Jay's eyes on me. His lip curled up in disdain, but there was a lascivious light in his blue eyes. He leaned on the counter with one hip thrust forward and his thumb in his belt, and a lock of dark hair tumbled forward into his eye giving him a rakish look. Three pairs of eyes were on me, waiting for my explanation.

"I was at a friend's," I muttered, hating them all.

"Which friend ?" asked my mother with a glance at the rose, and then Claire. Claire shrugged.

"I have other friends besides you !" I shouted at her, thinking that I wouldn't have her for much longer, not that I cared. She contrived to look hurt, but I wasn't fooled. I was tempted to run back to the house again, and stay with him. At least he would take me seriously, and he wasn't patronising.

"Like who ?" she asked me. I admit it, I did not have many friends at school, being considered rather eccentric, and those I did have, besides her of course, had all been at the party with us. I shrugged. There was one friend they did not know about and I wasn't going to do anything to change that.

"What's he doing here anyway ?" I pointed at Jay, who had been slouching quietly against the counter and gearing up to enjoy a showdown.

"Now, Izzy," began my mother in her best now-let's-behave-like-a-normal-polite-adult voice, the one that really brought on the red mist, "Jay was concerned about you and came to find out if you were ok. You might be a bit nicer, he's come all this way."

"You always say that !" I yelled, "he hasn't come all that far, I can tell you, and it wasn't out of concern either ! You're a pig !" this last was to Jay, and he did look taken aback at the venom with which I spat it out. I guess he wasn't used to women hating him. I turned back to my mother, who was working herself up to a lecture by the looks of her.

"If I choose not to tell you or anyone else where I've been or what I've been doing then that's my business not yours !" I went on, wishing my eighteenth birthday would hurry up and arrive so that I could be classed as an adult and not feel guilty about not telling them – and have the freedom to go where I wanted without being obliged to offer an explanation to anyone.

I fled before they could hold me back with their arguments and accusations, and refused to come down from my room once I had showered and changed, crumpling the hideous fairy outfit into the bin. I hadn't got very far into my book when there was a knock on my door. After a moment's hesitation, I yanked it open, ungraciously.

"Izzy, can I talk to you ?" asked my mother, "I'm a little concerned about you is all. You seem to spend so much time at that old house…..are you seeing someone there ? Meeting a boy, perhaps ?"

I gaped at her. Seeing someone ? Little did she know ! But in true mother-radar style, she'd managed to cotton on to the fact that I was doing more at the house than just painting. I didn't think its master could be classed as a boy, though. Describing him as even fully human was stretching the truth a bit. I suppressed the urge to laugh.

"I have not been meeting any boys, or men for that matter," I sniffed, truthfully enough. She appeared relieved at that, but still suspicious as to what precisely I had been doing, if not meeting boys. As if that were the only legitimate pastime for a young girl !

"Well you can't be painting the whole time," she said, "where are your sketchbooks ? You should have a whole gallery by now !"

I rolled my eyes. "I don't just paint !" I said, "sometimes the only thing I do there is read. I like it there, it's a peaceful place." That too was true. It was peaceful, and sometimes when I went there he was happy enough to sit in silence with his own book and let me read mine. And sometimes we walked through the gardens discussing everything from literature to history, which he seemed to know a lot about. I shifted impatiently in my doorway, wondering what my reception would be if I returned to him that day. I didn't get to make that decision though, because my mother took my arm and firmly guided me downstairs.

"Whatever it is you do, we don't spend enough time together," she said, while I groaned inwardly, "so I baked a cake and made some tea, and we can sit down and watch the film. There's no need for you to be haring off round the country side today, young lady !"

"As long as Jay and my bitch friend have gone," I said rudely. She gave me a Look, but was wise enough to let that one go, at least for the time being.

That summer I got my University place, to my great delight. My mother received the news with a mixture of pride and regret, for I would be going a long way away, London, to be precise. I couldn't wait, although I was nervous too, it would be my first time away from home on a long term basis and I was a little worried about how I'd cope.

My friend at the house did his best to be pleased for me, but I could see misery in his eyes at the thought of being without my company for weeks at a time.

"I'll be back in the holidays," I tried to reassure him, though he wasn't to be consoled with that promise. "And I'll write to you, if you like."

"I don't have any desire to have postmen traipsing down the track to deliver a letter," he told me grumpily, and I huffed at him.

"Fine, I won't write !"

"I will write to you," he offered, and I had visions of him sneaking along to a distant post box in the middle of the night to post a letter. I stifled a giggle.

"What's so funny ?" he was being unusually brusque today, I thought. It's not as if I was leaving the country for the next hundred years, it was only college for Goodness' sake ! I wanted to change the subject, but he seemed to have gloomily taken hold of the current one and was hell-bent on torturing himself with my imminent departure.

"You're about to start a life away from your childhood," he moped, staring gloomily out of the window, "you'll meet plenty of new friends in college, for that is where you'll find the people like you whom you've been craving to meet all your life. I have been a bridge to that; I will be surprised to see you, if you visit me."

"Oh for - ! Of course I'll visit, after all, I have to have something to do when I come home !" I teased him, but I was secretly miffed that he'd mentioned that I was about to leave my childhood behind, when I considered myself to have already left it. My eighteenth birthday had come and gone, I was legally an adult. I stuck my tongue out at his back, just as he turned to look at me. His expression turned quizzical, and a little amused. I laughed, embarrassed.

"I get enough lectures from my mother," I said, "I don't want any from you. You never believed in my promises before, and I kept them, why do you think this time will be different ?"

"Because I know people," he said, "I was one once. Technically I still am, depending on your definition of person."

"Ah yes, the curse," I rolled my eyes, "what was it again ? An evil faery cast a spell on you so that you became….what, exactly ? If you ask

me, it wasn't a very good curse. What was it supposed to achieve, that's what I don't understand." I still didn't really believe in this curse of his, despite the existence of plates that seemed to move by themselves.

He regarded me for a moment with eyes narrowed, wondering how much of what I said was merely sarcasm. I matched him stare for stare, and finally he relented.

"I was vain," he said, "and thought myself too good for the likes of many people, including a certain old woman who came to my house one winter's night seeking shelter. She had only a rose to offer me, but I scorned even that, and turned her away. For that, she cursed me – to live for eternity as…this…unless…"

"Yeah ? Unless what ?"

He winced. "I cannot say."

"But…"

"I cannot say !" he repeated forcefully, and I shrank back from his sudden anger. He rubbed the spot between his eyes wearily, and then snapped his finger for more wine. He had a cellar full of fine vintages which, having reached legal age, I was able to take full advantage of. It never seemed to affect him the way it did me.

"When was this ?" I asked. I know, he had told me before, but I wanted to see if I could catch him out with his lie.

"Two hundred and thirty years ago," he replied. Damn.

"Aha ! Got you ! Now I know that can't be true, 'cos this house was only built in 1800. I did some research," I smirked at him. He glared.

"This is not the house I started life in," he told me, "I took this over not long after it was built. The family suffered from a few aristocratic problems, and I solved them. Any more questions, or is the Inquisition over ?"

And that was that. I knew that tone, it meant that pursuit of the subject would result in his anger and me being driven home and tipped out on the pavement without so much as a goodbye. I pursed my lips and resolved to delve deeper with my research.

"And you can forget about doing any further research on it ! If I wanted you to know I would tell you !" he barked.

I resolved to do it anyway.

My first term at college was just about the worst upheaval in my life, and the Christmas holidays were a welcome respite from it all, though I caught flu on the train home and was laid up for most of Christmas, which was over too soon. Of course, I had not been able to get out to see my friends, any of them, although Claire did call on me a couple of times, and once, unwanted and most certainly unasked for, Jay came to see me, bringing with him a massive bunch of flowers and a greasy leer just for me, and what he thought was a debonair wink for my mother. I turned my nose up at the lot, and refused to speak more than was necessary. Jay was the last person I wanted to see, when I had my head bunged up with cold. Not that I wanted to see him at all. I fretted about not being able to go over the house, and I fretted about not being able to tell him why. I knew he would just think I had forgotten my promise.

And so it was Easter before I saw him again. I went as soon as I could, my heart in my mouth, and found the house as dead silent as it had been when first I'd started going there. There was a coldness about it that I didn't like, and there was no answer to my knock. There wasn't usually one, to be honest, except the door swinging open to admit me, but now the doors refused to budge when I tried the handles. I stood back and glared up at the windows.

"If this is punishment for not visiting you at Christmas, then I couldn't, because I was ill !" I yelled. "I'd have written to you, but of course you didn't want any postmen, so it's your fault ! Now please let me in !"

I waited there for what seemed like an age, and then the door swung slowly inwards and I saw him, standing on the steps looking down at me. He was as pale as a ghost and his amber eyes were cold and sad.

"Six months is a long time to be without you, Beauty," he said, his voice as pale as his face. I felt near to tears, staring up at him. What I wanted to do was to run into his arms, and that sudden emotion startled and disgruntled me. I scowled.

"And what about me ?" I snapped, "I've missed you, too !"

He came down the steps, and stood so close that I was almost afraid to look at him. He touched my cheek gently, and I found that I no longer wanted to flinch at his clawed touch, but turned my face into his palm. He shoved both hands in his pockets then, and turned abruptly back up the steps. I followed him anxiously, afraid that he might slam the door in my face after all, but he stood aside to let me in first, and directed me to the Orangery.

No sooner had I sat down than I launched into what had become my favourite subject for the last couple of months.

"I did the research you said I wasn't to," I began, watching him warily for signs of bad temper. He merely looked at me, and blinked.

"I thought you would. Go on," he said evenly. I swallowed hard; I had caught the hint of steel beneath his mild tone.

"These aristocratic problems you solved….you murdered them all didn't you ?"

He narrowed his eyes. "In cold blood, Beauty."

Oh hell….! But I had known for a while now…I ploughed on nevertheless. "You're Lord Wyndenhal ? Really ?"

He inclined his head. "I am."

I smirked. Lord Wyndenhal was in the house records up to a point – that being the point where he'd murdered everyone. After that, I'd had to take my research further afield. He intrigued me rather than worried me. I dumped the books I'd taken from the library onto the little table. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of them, but didn't comment.

"Why did you do it ?" I asked, "I mean, didn't you have your own house already ? You must have done, you're a Lord."

"It got burned to the ground by an angry mob," he said matter-of-factly, "as mobs tend to do. I hadn't taken too well to my situation, you see, and in those days people were very quick to cry witchcraft, and burn whatever they could get their hands on. They intended to burn me, in my house, but I'd already left, unknown to them." He chuckled darkly, though I didn't really see the joke.

"So why this house, and this family ?" I asked.

"Inbred, evil landowners. Skeletons and closets all over the place. I rid the land of tyranny when I did for them. Beauty, you must not judge me on my behaviour two hundred years ago. It was a while before I accepted my condition, and even longer before I realised I needed to rise above it."

"I don't judge you," I said, wondering if that was true. I didn't ask how he'd murdered them. I knew – the history books were not terribly discreet in the telling. Somewhere in this vast manor were two false walls, with two of the former inhabitants sealed behind. I shuddered. I hoped that they had been very terrible to deserve that fate, otherwise……time to change the subject, I thought.

He sensed my discomfiture, and pointed out of the windows across the lawn, to where the hedge of yellow roses was.

"They do not do so well without you here," he said. I stared at him in sudden horror.

"What do you mean ?"

"I mean, I have not the heart to tend to my roses when I must spend months without you," he said softly, stepping close again. I put my hand up to his chest to ward him off. His intensity was making me dizzy.

"Now hang on !" I glared at him, "you can't be seriously telling me that this entire place depends on me !"

"Not this entire place, just me."

"Stop it."

He looked at me sadly, then sighed, and snapped his fingers for more coffee. It arrived promptly as usual, the best coffee I had ever tasted, all fragrant warmth and cinnamon sweetness, for he liked it spiced and I had developed a taste for it. The watery soup they served in cafes didn't even compare, and I never touched instant. My friends at college complained that I was a coffee snob, but then they had not tasted the nectar I had here. I watched him stir a spoonful of muscavado sugar into his cup and sprinkle cinnamon and chocolate on top, and then did the same, wondering what on earth he wanted from me.

"Beauty," he said after his first sip, "will you marry me ?"

I nearly dropped my cup, after snorting hot coffee up my nose in shock. "What ? No !" I replied, horrified. "I mean, I'm much too young for marriage," I continued hurriedly, after seeing the misery on his face at my refusal. He merely nodded, as if he'd expected my reply all along. Well, who was he kidding ? Marry him, indeed ! I thought indignantly.

"What did you ask for ?" I asked, curiously.

"In the hope you'd say yes," he replied with a bitter smile.

"I'm not likely to say yes to just any man who asks," I sniffed, "Marriage is an outdated and frankly quite pointless institute. I don't know why anyone bothers."

"What could you know about it, Beauty, you have said yourself that you are too young for marriage." Oh very snide, very clever, I thought sourly. I detested him when he caught me out like that.

"Alright, smart-arse, let's pretend I said yes, what then ?"

"Why then, the world would recognise you as mistress of all of this," he swept his arm around to encompass house and grounds, "and my heart."

"You mean I'm not already ?" Two could play this game.

"You are," he chuckled, laughter dancing in his eyes as he caught me out yet again, "but only in my eyes, not the eyes of the world, or the law, or even my servants."

"You don't have any servants."

"I do," he nodded, and pointed a finger at the sugar pot. It stamped over to him and stroppily flung two cubes in his cup. I gawped.

"They're……they're….under the same enchantment as you are ?" I floundered, not believing a word of it, "but…."

"And not at your beck and call, as you noticed when my door did not open at your command. It only opens at my command, Beauty. But as my wife, you would be queen here. Lady Wyndenhal – does that not sound good ?"

"Tempting, but no thanks," I said promptly, "like I said, I'm much too young. I have to finish college first !"

"It will gain you nothing," he said.

"You don't even know what I'm studying," I snapped at him, offended.

"Fine art. You told me, months ago, I have not forgotten. And it will gain you nothing."

"What would you know about it ?" I resisted the urge to fling my coffee in his face. It was lukewarm by now so it wouldn't hurt, but he'd still have coffee all over him. The thought was very, very tempting. He raised an eyebrow.

"I wouldn't," he warned, and I marvelled, not for the first time, how he could seemingly read my mind. Or maybe I was just very transparent. I shrugged.

"Fine, I won't. But the thought was there, hope you appreciate it." I muttered.

He laughed, and rose. "Since you have come back to me, I have something for you."

I stood in a room I had not seen before, a huge room, with galleries around the walls, and windows two storeys high, draped in gold brocade and green lace. The floor was polished oak, and the pillars white marble, the ceiling plastered snow white and gilded with more of the fantastical creatures I'd seen elsewhere in the house.

"Was this your doing, or the previous owner's ?" I asked him, staring around with eyes wide with awe.

"Mine," he said, "and all against the day I gain a wife." He drew aside the window drapes, letting a flood of early Spring sunshine into the room, spilling across the floor like molten gold. I drew in my breath in delight as I watched the room spring to life. The forest mural on the walls seemed to be alive, the trees swaying in a gentle breeze, and from somewhere I heard the flow of water as of a little forest stream. He showed where this came from – fountains behind the walls, flowing water around the room in little gutters lined with beaten gold. I swallowed hard, my heart full of the beauty of it all.

"Marry me," he said again…..and I almost accepted him, so carried away with the room's romance was I. One look at the intensity of emotion in his eyes brought me back to earth with a thud.

"No," I said, the spell broken, "I can't."

He turned sadly away, and left me there, alone in the magical ballroom that only a wife had any right to. I let myself out, and miserably walked the four miles back home by myself.

Jay began to seriously press his suit in the summer when I came home from college again, to the extent that I could barely move for tripping over him. The last straw came when he caught me on one of my walks over to the house. I turned at the sound of a sports car speeding along the lane, and stood aside to let it pass, but it drew up alongside me and I saw that the driver was Jay, with the roof down and sports shades covering his eyes. His hair had grown a little longer, and curled fetchingly around his ears, and a brand new Rolex sparkled on his wrist.

"Wanna lift somewhere, darlin' ?" he grinned at me. Somewhere, he had learned to be even smarmier, and I shuddered.

"Bugger off, Jay," I told him, "I'm just out for a walk, that's all."

"Long walk, innit ? You sure I can't drive you out somewhere ? Come on, hop in !"

"What part of bugger off did you not understand ?"

"The part where you told me to bugger off," he smirked, sniggering at his own joke. I sneered at him, and began to walk off. He drove behind at a snail's pace, and turned his music up, then down again to yell at me.

"I'm going into town tomorrow," he shouted above the noise, "I'll go leave you in peace now if you'll come with me ! Dinner ?"

"You can take your dinner and – ok fine !" I said, realising halfway through that this was my chance to get rid of him. Come tomorrow I had no intention of being found by him, but of course he wouldn't know that. He whooped, and then sped off, and I congratulated myself on having fooled him.

But I was wrong. I was halfway down the track when I heard the low rumble of an engine, and turned in greeting thinking it would be my friend, though what he would leave the house at this time of day for I could not think. But it wasn't him, it was Jay, smugly driving up behind me. He drew level and braked, and I stood dumbly in the verge, my heart hammering in my ears.

"Thought you'd got rid of me, didn't you ?" he smiled nastily, "think I'm that stupid ? I know you're seeing someone ! Look at that, who'd have thought that bloody great house could sit here empty all this time, and no-one bothered ? So who lives there, I wonder ?"

"Mind your own business !" I fumed, "you had no right to follow me !"

"Didn't I ? Why not ? And maybe I wasn't following you, maybe I was just out for a drive and we happened to end up going the same way ?"

"I will never go the same way as you !" I howled at him, "I hate you ! Can't you get that through your thick head ?"

He laughed, and drove on down the drive, all the way to the front door. Dismayed, I could do nothing but follow, and hope that he would think the house deserted, as I had once done. But he went straight up to the front door, and pushed it open. I gasped, wondering how that was possible – that door did not open unless its master ordered it to. He was standing just inside the doorway, tall and stern, and Jay faltered a little. He recovered quickly however, and looked his rival up and down with a sneer.

"So I was right !" he crowed triumphantly, " you are seeing someone ! Does your mother know ?"

"You're in my house," said Lord Wyndenhal ominously, folding his arms. He looked at me over Jay's head, and I shook my head.

"I didn't bring him, he followed me," I said, a touch defensively. "I thought no-one could come here unless you said so."

"Beauty, come inside," he said, and I did, wondering what on earth he was up to. Jay laughed at me.

"Beauty ?" he snorted, "is he blind ? There are prettier girls than you, you know, I could have any one of them. But you could have me, why would you choose him ?"

"Be quiet !" said his host, and the door slammed shut behind us, leaving the entrance hall in semi-darkness. His strange eyes glowed amber, and he stepped up close to Jay.

He smiled, and I smirked, remembering the first time I'd seen that smile. Jay staggered back, his eyes wide with horror, and backed up against the wall.

"Izzy, call him off ! Get him off me !" he shrieked, panicked. I ignored him.

"I gather that this is the boy whose company you object to so much ?" my friend asked me, circling Jay slowly, first one way then the other, like a pacing wolf. He certainly looked like a wolf right then, and as his hand shot out and grabbed Jay by the throat and flung him against the wall, hard enough that Jay bit his tongue with the impact, and spat blood on the dark polished floor. He gibbered with fear, and I resisted the urge to laugh hysterically. Lord Wyndenhal was far more dangerous than I had ever thought, I realised. There was a feral light in his eyes as he turned to me.

"If you wish it, I can make sure he never bothers you again."

"Tempting," I admitted, thinking of Jay's broken body down a well somewhere, "but you probably should just let him go, in one piece – besides, your roses will probably die if they have to have him buried underneath them."

He gave me a startled look, then laughed, dropping the gibbering Jay on the floor.

"That's not what I meant," he smiled at me, "What I was offering to do was put the fear of God into him. Shall I ?"

"I think you already have," I smiled back. He turned to the quivering wreck on the floor, and aimed a kick. Jay howled, though in truth the kick was not that hard.

"Get out," hissed my wolf, and Jay scrambled to his feet, his eyes wild. "Get out, and remember: if you come here again there is nothing Beauty can say to prevent my anger."

Jay fled, pausing only long enough to yell a few insults and a threat to tell my mother, and then leapt in his car and sped off, his tyres flinging gravel in his haste to get away.

"He will tell her," I said, wondering what that would mean. He shrugged.

"Let him." He held out his hand for mine, to lead me into the Orangery for tea. I realised I was hungry after the walk and the agro with Jay, and I eyed the selection of small cakes that were already laid out, my stomach rumbling.

"You're now of age, are you not ?" he asked, cutting me a generous slice of apple cake. I nodded, my mouth already full of tea. "So what if he does tell your mother ? What difference will it make ? You have leave of the law to come and go as you please, Beauty. And it seems to me that you are too used to minding what other people think…"

"That's not true !" I protested, nearly choking on my cake. Just for once, I thought sulkily, I would like to have tea and cake with him without him saying something to shock or annoy me. Fat chance.

"It is, I think," he contradicted me, in that reasonable tone of voice that made me want to be as irrational and unreasonable as possible. I sighed.

"So what ?" I demanded, "what's your point ?"

He stirred cream and sugar into his cup with elegant movements, and I thought of the strength in those hands, that had held a man near grown fast against the wall with little effort.

"Time to live for yourself." He paused.

"Meaning ?"

"Marry me."

"What ? Now look, I told you already, I am not marrying you, or anyone for that matter, I'm too young !"

"You're too afraid !" he shouted back, his calmness gone, and in its place, frustrated rage. He set his cup down and glared at me. I saw the hurt in his eyes, and tears welled in mine.

"I don't know what you want me to be," I sniffled. He reached out and took my hand, twining my fingers between his. I didn't pull away. I didn't want to.

"What you don't want to be," he whispered sadly, and let me go.

Jay was true to his threat, and informed my meddling mother of where it was I was constantly nicking off to, as she put it. A frosty silence greeted me when I got in, and I knew why.

"Jay's been here, has he ?" I asked as casually as I could, though I knew the answer.

"He certainly has, young lady," my mother answered stiffly, her lips pursed.

"You do realise it's none of his business ? Or yours ?"

"What my daughter gets up to is my business," she replied glaring at me.

"Not any more !" I retorted. "In case you forgot, I am officially an adult and I don't have to explain anything to you !"

"Don't take that tone with me !" she shot back, "I happen to care about you, Izzy, and when you go off for hours and hours at a time, in the company of some man I don't know, it is cause for concern. He could be anyone ! Jay told me what he did. He sounds dangerous."

"He is," I said smugly. The look of horror on her face nearly made up for the fact of Jay's betrayal. "Oh relax," I sighed, "he isn't like that. Jay broke into his house….."

"The house you informed me was empty," she reminded me.

"…..and had been bothering me beforehand. It's Jay you should disapprove of, not my friend."

"Your friend ? Is that all he is ?"

"Yes." I said truthfully enough.

"And that is all he wants ?" she asked shrewdly. I scowled.

"He asked me to marry him. Twice."

"I hope you refused ! And what might his name be, this mysterious friend of yours ?"

"Actually he's never told me, and I haven't asked," I lied. "I haven't found it necessary. He calls me Beauty."

"And well he might if he thought it would get him what he wants ! Men are all the same, Izzy, they only ever want one thing."

"Not this man."

"He asked you to marry him !"

"At least he has the decency to ask that, instead of "can I take you to bed" – and there are men just like Jay who wouldn't even ask that !" I yelled at her. A realisation had just hit me – that it wasn't marriage I was afraid of, but what he was really asking, and who I would be then, and my feelings regarding that. She is right, I thought – but only partly. She was looking at me sadly.

"Are you sure that friendship is all you want, Izzy ?" she asked. "Because it sounds to me like there's something more."

I looked miserably at the floor.

"I'm going back out." I said, and turned on my heel and left.

The sight that greeted me at the house was a dreadful one. Coming down the track in the twilight, I could see the flash of blue lights, and several voices raised in anger, and an orange glow somewhere near the library. I advanced cautiously at first, then ran as I realised what that crackling sound was that accompanied the orange glow. Fire !

The library, I thought, pounding down the dirt track with my heart in my throat. There were police cars, a fire engine - "What happened ?" I yelled at the nearest police officer. He shook his head and tried to hold me back, but then I saw Jay, handcuffed between two officers, and two of his horrible friends with him, being shoved into the back of a police car. A terrible fear gripped me, and I felt my cheeks wet with tears.

"Where is….?" I began, but of course I could not say his name. A Lord would bring the press down here like a bat out of hell. "Please….the owner of this house is my friend, where is he ?" I tried to push past, trying to get closer, to see.

"Calm yourself, miss," the young officer told me kindly, and the ambulance sped past us with sirens blaring. I gazed in despair at the officer, needing to know where he was.

But I didn't need him to tell me what had happened, Jay's presence told me clearly enough. But Jay had not seemed hurt. I could not understand that. My wolf would never let him leave with his life twice, I knew. I shivered and stood forlornly watching the beautiful library burn, the fire hoses struggling to bring the flames under control. I went to sit on the steps and wept, for the library, and for……I stopped. No, that's too…..but what if he……I can't lose him. I wiped my eyes and rose shakily to my feet, and set off again.

Halfway up the track, out of sight, I nipped over the hedge and started over the fields, from where I would reach the back of the house. I found him upstairs in his chambers, sprawled on the rug by the fireplace while his library burned. I had to get him up, I thought, before the firemen controlled the flames and the police came inside to investigate. He needed to be strong.

His hands, strong and clawed, lay lifeless at his side, and his eyes were thankfully closed. There was a nasty gash on his forehead, and the blood had matted his hair near one ear. I shuddered, and glared down at him.

"I thought you said no-one could come to your house without your say-so," I snapped at him crossly. His eyes opened, but he didn't move.

"My magic is fading," he said. His voice was hushed, as if he didn't even have the energy to speak, let alone ward his house. I took his hand, cool and strong. I squeezed his fingers between mine, suddenly afraid for him.

"Why ?"

He struggled up into a sitting position, still grasping my hand. "I only have a short time," he explained, "take a look at the rose I gave you. It will be fading. When the last petal falls…"

"Don't be so melodramatic !" I scolded him. I wasn't up for his fairy tales tonight. I was cold, tired, and worried sick, and I didn't want to have to deal with his rubbish. I only wanted him to be alright. His brows knitted together in a frown and his eyes blazed.

"If listening to me is beyond your selfishness, then don't ask me questions !" he growled. I dropped his hand and folded my arms.

"I remember telling you I had no time for fairy tales." I said, hurt by his words.

"And I remember telling you to believe what you see with your own eyes !" he shot back. Sighing, I ran my hands through my dishevelled hair.

"Fine," I said, "whatever. The rose. What about it ?"

"As I was saying," he said aggravatingly calmly, "the last petal. When it falls, I will die."

"I did say not to be melodramatic."

"As if I enjoy it. I do not."

"You're serious ? You'll really die ?" I couldn't believe that, I didn't want to. I grabbed his hand again, and held it in both my own. He smiled, a sad little lopsided smile that didn't touch his eyes.

"You didn't say unless," he chastised me gently.

"Eh ?"

"Come on Beauty, work with me," he sighed, exasperated, "there's always an "unless", in all fairy tales. You should know that. I will die when the last petal falls, unless….."

"Yes ?" I said impatiently.

"Unless I can win the love of a woman."

I gawped at him. So this was what was behind his proposals of marriage ! He expected me to be his curse-breaker. I wanted to punch him.

"Beauty, I meant it," he protested, "Your acceptance would have meant nothing if I didn't return your love, my proposal came from the heart, you know that.…"

"You're an idiot !" I snarled at him. I expected the passion in his eyes to fade, as it usually did when I rejected him, but this time he was not letting go. He raised himself higher and clutched hold of my hands again, in a grip stronger than a man injured and in pain should have had. I tried twisting away, but he held tight.

"I am an idiot !" he agreed ferociously, "an idiot to ever let you in my life in the hope of winning your love ! How long have I got, Beauty ? Do you even look at that rose anymore ?"

"Just last night," I lied through my tears. He was hurting me, but I couldn't tell him that I'd thrown that rose out, when its petals began to fall.

Somehow, though, he knew. The breath went out of him, and he fell back on the pillows, defeated.

"I was never important," he murmured, more to himself than to me. "Leave me, Beauty. I wish to be in peace."

"What can I do ?" I asked him, no longer angry, but frightened. "Have I really made such a mess of it all ?"

"Yes."

"What can I do ?" I asked again. Tears gathered behind my eyes and I hated him for making me feel that way. As he turned away from me, I suddenly did not know why I was fighting any more. I reached out and stroked his hair, tangled and matted with blood from his encounter with Jay.

"Don't you dare turn your back on me," I whispered, "don't leave me !"

He was silent and unyielding, punishing me for my refusal to love him. But I do love you, I thought, and the shock of it hit me hard, so that I burst into tears. I grasped his shoulder and shook him, pleading with him not to leave me, and that I wouldn't go away from him even if he ordered me to, and finally, choking on my tears again, "I love you."

He turned then, slowly, his amber eyes soft, and drew me gently into his arms. I felt his warmth through my clothes, and slipped my arms round him. I tried to bury my face in his shoulder but he took my face in his hands and kissed me, full on the mouth, and it was not at all as I had imagined, but a strange mix of strength and sweetness and anger, and I wanted more.

He let me go abruptly, holding me at arm's length, his eyes unreadable.

"Say that again," he commanded, and I noticed how much stronger he had grown with that kiss, his injuries forgotten. I blushed.

"I love you," I whispered, and meant it. He scrambled to his feet, and then crushed me to him again, and the kiss he gave me was full of need.

"Ah, Beauty," he said raggedly when I broke the kiss, "where are they ?"

"Where are what ?"

"Not what; who," he said, looking about the room distractedly. "The police, the firemen. I need them gone."

"You'll have to go out and speak to them, or they'll come in here," I said, "unless…..the curse…"

"No, Beauty, you broke that; I have no more magic." He curled up his lip, letting me see his eye teeth. It took me a moment to realise what he was showing me. They were blunter, shorter, than they had been. I looked into his eyes, and gasped – they were no longer a wolfish amber, but a soft grey. And there were no longer claws on the end of his fingers, but nails, human nails, pink and healthy, and the thick brown fuzz had gone from his wrists. I smiled.

"But you can't introduce yourself as Lord Wyndenhal," I said.

"I had better introduce myself as someone," he said.

"Not unless they ask." I insisted.

"Very well, Beauty. I shall not reveal who I am, if I can avoid it. Will you come down with me ?"

I slipped my arm through his, and we went down together. Jay and his accomplices had been whisked away, much to my relief, but there were still the firemen and two police officers to contend with.

Lord Wyndenhal is a very good actor, I thought afterwards, as we stood in the ruins of the library watching the ash settle. The police had left, looking bewildered but firmly believing that they'd known about him all along, thanks to his fast talking. Dawn was creeping up fast, and I yawned. I wanted coffee, and something to eat, but I was unsure about how to go about getting it from the servants who were milling around, staring at the wreckage and glaring at Lord Wyndenhal, who seemed oblivious to their presence. Finally, a plump woman in a mob cap marched up to him and yanked on his sleeve.

"You've got some explaining to do, young man !" she snapped at him. He licked his lips nervously, and glanced at me.

"Not now, Mrs Potts," he hissed, and tried to turn her around and march her straight back out again, but she dug her heels in and was quickly joined by two other servants, a teenage boy with lank greasy hair and a sullen expression ( whom I later learned had been the sugar pot ) and a middle-aged man in a crisp cravat who had been the invisible butler. I edged closer, wondering what explanation they thought he owed them.

"Now is a very good time, Lord Wyndenhal," scolded Mrs Potts, and wagged a finger under his chin, making him frown.

"Yes, now," clamoured the others, "you owe us ! You murdered our masters and brought this curse on us ! We want to know why."

He stared at me above their heads, and I stared back, my mouth open in shock. He lied ! I thought indignantly. He pushed his way past them and made his way over to me, grabbing my arm before I could escape.

"You told me you killed them after the curse !" I yelled at him, twisting in his arms to get free. He held me fast.

"Beauty, no, I only let you believe that," he insisted, "if you think back to the conversation we had, I never once told you outright that I had committed the crime after I had been transformed."

"That's because you're a silver tongued bastard !" I tried kicking his ankles but he twisted me away from him and held me at arms length.

"Don't be difficult," he warned me, "I have no wish to fight with you. We will discuss this later. Mrs Potts, show Beauty up to her room."

"My room ?" I fumed, " I don't have a room here ! I don't belong here ! Not with you ! Let me go !" But he would not, and marched me up to the room I had stayed in before, and shut the door behind us.

"Beauty," he began gently, "please don't be like this. The things I let you believe…"

"Lies, you mean."

"……were for your own protection. And mine, of course. But that does not change who I am, or how I feel about you."

"What happens if I tell you I don't love you after all ?" I asked him, my tone bitter. But as I said it, I knew it wasn't true. He caught the tears that began to run down my face with his fingers, warm and gentle, and then his lips found mine and I had no will to resist him.

"I am not sure," he smiled, "but I think, for anything to happen, you'd have to mean it."

"You're a beast !" I accused him.

He laughed at that. "Perhaps. I told you; evil fairies seldom think things through when they cast spells. Her condition was that I find someone to love me, not that I change completely."

I sighed. He was right. But I figured he couldn't be nearly as bad as he had been, or it would have shown, and I would never have fallen in love with him, although that was something I was questioning the wisdom of.

"Ah but Beauty, perhaps my crimes were the start of my redemption," he said philosophically. I frowned, puzzled.

"What are you on about ?"

"The family I murdered," he said, "were tyrants, worse than I had ever been – debauched and inbred, rapists and torturers all. Do you think I was wrong to mete out the justice that would have been given me, if my own people had got my hands on me ? Don't think in black and white, Beauty; just be content to love me. I have no intention of not deserving your love." He drew me close to him again, and I let him, taking his words to heart and giving up the fight against him.

"Beauty," he said after a while, "will you marry me ?"

And this time I told him the truth.

"Yes," I said.

THE END