Chapter 1

'Dungeon' was a bit of an exaggeration. The castle obviously hadn't been built with the intention to hold prisoners – the 12" by 12" little stone cell seemed like an after-thought. It was small, and while she hadn't gotten a good look around, she was fairly sure it was the only one in the short hallway. The thing wasn't even down deep in the bowels of the castle, like a proper dungeon….it was just a few steps down from the formal dining room, and, she guessed, directly adjacent to the kitchen – she'd heard the familiar whistling of a tea kettle, and the clattering of a few pots and pans coming from across the hallway a few hours after she'd been unceremoniously dumped into her "room".

Belle leaned forward, her head in her hands, her ribs aching from her restrictive corsetry as she hunched on the little stone shelf that she assumed would serve as her bed. Her father had always said her ornery streak would get her into trouble someday, and here was the proof of it. Shoot off your mouth in front of the wrong person – in front of the worst POSSIBLE person – and this is where you end up.

It was just – she was so bloody tired of being the pawn in everyone else's schemes, shuffled around back and forth, showed off, used for leverage, and never, EVER, having a say in the matter. She wasn't as ignorant of the political climate as the court always seemed to assume; she had been listening at the keyholes since she was a child, since there was nothing more interesting to catch than talk of tariffs and trade agreements. When the difficulties with the ogres first started a few years ago she'd been bold with her suggestions and warnings, but she'd been affectionately dismissed, patronized like an overly precocious child. As the situation became more dire, and she became more desperate, she learned to soften her suggestions, to wrap them in questions that made her father think they were his own ideas.

When she overhead her father fumbling negotiations with a powerfully influential neighboring city-state, she'd put on her best dress and spent an evening feigning interest in the heroic exploits of their vapid and self-obsessed prat of a prince. She gasped and sighed and smiled in all the right places, and the alliance she forged with their engagement had been almost enough to protect her countrymen from the bearing the full brunt of the battle.

Almost.

But when she heard her father had summoned the gold-spinner, she'd abandoned all hope of their alliances offering any kind of protection.

So then, to have that foppish brute Gaston reach across her, to physically push her out of the way of a man who seemed, at the end, to be the only hope to save the lives of her people, the last opportunity remaining at the end of every thwarted attempt she'd made – well.

Something inside of her snapped.

Still, she thought leaning back and resting her head against the stone wall – the looks on their faces when she'd struck the deal on her own had been priceless. It was as if they'd never really heard her speak before then.

This was one step forward that they couldn't undo for her. And she had a feeling he knew that, as well. The deal had never been for her father to make. From the moment he entered their castle, from the first words he'd spoken, she had a feeling he'd known he was in negotiations with her.

A caretaker. He'd said he wasn't looking for love, and from what she'd heard of his ironclad deals, she felt safe she had nothing to fear on that count. But what exactly "caretaking" meant she still wasn't sure. She was waiting for the catch – and she had a feeling the "room" wasn't it.

Belle turned onto her side and stretched out on her new "bed". Cooking and cleaning might be preferable to the party-hosting and decorating she'd have been doing at Gaston's wife anyway. And, she noted with a snort, she would have substantially fewer antlers to dust here.