Accused of murder, Kristine Arrington has been condemned to death. Her salvation comes in the form of Erik Trevayne, infamously known as the Demon Lord of Hawksbridge Castle, when he buys her freedom and offers to marry her. Destined to die on the gallows, Kristine is nevertheless reluctant to accept his offer, for he refuses to let her see his face. And yet, Kristine's fear of death is stronger than her fear of the unknown.
Erik desires nothing from Kristine, nothing but a son. Cursed by a vindictive witch to slowly turn into a beast, he comes to his bride in the dark of the night, refusing to let her touch him or see him and yet, gradually, Beauty comes to care for the man who is gradually transforming into a Beast.
Is Erik destined to become a beast, or is true love strong enough to break the curse?
In a time long ago
And far away……
Erik Trevayne, seventh Lord of Hawksbridge Castle, stood at his wife's bedside. He watched in quiet horror as she strained to bring their firstborn child into the world.
His wife's mother, Charmion du Lac, the black witch of Cimmerian Crag, stood across from him, her gaze fixed on the mid-wife.
"Erik." Dominique reached for his hand, her body convulsing with pain as the life slowly ebbed from her body. "Erik…"
The sound of her anguished cries rose to a crescendo, slashing through the dimly lit bedchamber like lightning through storm-ravaged clouds, leaving a great gaping hole of silence when, with her last feeble breath, she expelled the tiny wrinkled infant from her womb.
A low moan, rife with a sorrow so deep it would never heal, issued from Charmion's lips. Stunned, he watched the tall, dark-haired woman grasp her daughter's limp hand as if, by the sheer force of her indomitable will, she could restore Dominique's life.
Erik's gaze moved to the mid-wife as she quickly cut the cord.
"The child?" he asked hoarsely. "Does it live?"
Slowly, the mid-wife shook her head. "I am truly sorry, my lord."
After wrapping the infant's body in a piece of sheeting, she
placed it on the foot of the bed. "There's naught I can do."
Bowing to the lord of the manor, the mid-wife backed out of the chamber, afraid, as were so many others, to turn her back on the witch.
Charmion lifted her head to regard the man standing across from her. "I warned you, Trevayne," she said with quiet menace. "You should have listened."
"You cannot blame me for this, Charmion."
"I can, and I do."
"It was not my fault!" He shook his head in denial, even as he accepted it for the lie it was.
"I begged you not to marry my daughter. I warned you she was not strong enough to give you an heir." Charmion lifted the stillborn child from the bed and cradled the shrouded infant in her arms. "But you would not listen...you would not listen! And now my daughter is dead, and her son with her." She stroked the infant's head. "You should not have planted your seed within my daughter's womb."
"It was what she wanted."
"It was what you wanted!"
"No." He had never wanted to marry, never wanted to be the Lord of Hawksbridge Castle. For as long as he could remember, he had dreamed of dedicating his life to the priesthood, of losing himself in the silence and serenity of cloistered walls. But then his brother, Robert, the rightful heir to the estates, had been killed in a hunting accident and the title had fallen to Erik. It had been his father's dying wish that Erik marry Dominique du Lac and sire an heir to continue the family name. Stricken with grief, hoping at last to win his sire's favor, Erik had knelt at his father's bedside and sworn to do as he wished.
Charmion had vigorously opposed the marriage, but for the first time in her life, Dominique had defied her mother to marry the man she adored. At Dominique's sweet urging, they had been married in secret. She had conceived within the first month.
"Look at me, Trevayne."
Unable to resist the supernatural power in Charmion's voice, he looked up, felt himself impaled by the hatred blazing in her witch-black eyes. Her heated gaze trapped his own, holding him immobile so he could neither move nor look away.
"A rutting beast you were, a beast you will become. Not all at once, my selfish one. Day by day, the change will come upon you, until you have suffered for every tear my daughter wept, for every drop of blood she shed this day."
She nodded once. "As I have said it, so it shall be."
"Is there to be no end? Your daughter's pain is over, ye
t you would condemn me to a life time of suffering."
Charmion placed the babe on its mother's belly; then, sitting on the edge of the bed, she drew mother and child into the cradle of her arms. Bending, she kissed her daughter's waxen cheek.
"When Dominique forgives you, so shall I."
"Charmion, listen to me..."
But it was too late. With a wave of her hand, the witch was gone, Dominique and the babe with her, leaving him alone with his grief, while the ominous portent of the witch's last words rang like bells of mourning in his ears.
Shivering uncontrollably, Kristine stood in the center of the dreary cell, her only light that of a single candle. The stones were cold beneath her bare feet; the gray walls were damp and covered with mold. The single window was small and square and barred. And set too high for her to see out. Not that she would have looked, for there was nothing to see but the gallows where, on the morrow, she would draw her last breath.
She whirled around at the sound of a key in the lock, backed away from the door as it swung open.
"I've come to cut yer hair," the burly guard said, moving into the room. He shoved a three-legged stool toward her. "Sit down."
Hands clasped, she did as bidden, her nostrils wrinkling with distaste as he leaned toward her. He smelled of old sweat and ale. The stink of the prison clung to his clothing.
She recoiled at the touch of his dirty hands moving through the heavy fall of her hair, dug her fingers into her arm to keep from crying out as he made the first cut.
"Damn, girl, ye've got enough hair for a dozen women," he muttered.
The sound of the heavy shears sounded like thunder in her ears, and with each cut, another lock of hair fell at her feet. She squeezed her eyes tight shut as he deprived her of her one true beauty. She had always been vain about her hair. Unbound, it had fallen in thick golden waves past her hips. Was this the punishment for her vanity?
"Ought to bring a fine price from the wigmaker," the guard remarked as he gathered her hair from the floor and moved toward the door. "More than enough to pay fer yer buryin"."
Kristine waited until he was gone, and then, feeling like a sheep shorn of its wool, she ran her hands over the short spiky ends. Tears burned her eyes and she stiffened her shoulders. She was going to die. She would not cry over the loss of her tresses.
A short time later, a tall, solemn-faced priest came to hear her last confession. A single tear escaped as he gave her absolution, then traced the sign of the cross on her forehead.
Alone again, she sank down on the floor, her head cradled in her hands.
She was going to die.
Feeling numb, she sat there. Would it hurt? Would her legs hold her as they led her up to the gallows? Or would she collapse, weeping and crying like some spineless coward?
She didn't want to die. She had nothing to live for, but she didn't want to die.
Her head jerked up when the door opened again.
Was it time already?
But it wasn't a guard who entered her cell, but a kind-faced nun bearing a wooden tray laden with a plate of broiled chicken, fresh vegetables, and a loaf of bread still warm and soft instead of hard and stale and crawling with worms. There was a glass of warm sweet wine, as well.
"For me?" After weeks of watered gruel, moldy bread, and tepid water, it seemed a feast indeed.
The elderly nun nodded.
Kristine wept with gratitude as she savored each bite of tender chicken, each morsel of the warm, yeasty bread.
The nun didn't speak, only smiled sympathetically as she patted Kristine's arm, then carried the dirty dishes away.
Later, full for the first time in weeks, Kristine curled up on the thin pallet in the corner. Seeking oblivion in sleep, she was too steeped in despair to give heed to the skinny, long-tailed rats that scurried across the stones in search of some small scrap of food. No need to worry about being bitten now, she thought glumly. What difference did it make if she caught the plague?
The rattle of the guard's keys roused her from a troubled sleep. She bolted upright, fearing that it was morning and they had come to take her to the block. Stomach churning with fear, she stared at the guard, blinking against the light of the lamp.
"That's her," the guard said. He stepped into the cell and lifted the lamp higher. "Stand up, girl. His Lordship wants to see yer face."
She had learned long ago to do as she was told, and to do it quickly. Hardly daring to breathe, she scrambled to her feet.
It was then that she saw him, a dark shape that looked like death itself shrouded in a long black woolen cloak. The garment fell in deep folds from his broad shoulders to brush the tops of his black leather boots. The hood of the cloak was pulled low, hiding his face from her view. Black kidskin gloves covered his hands. He stood there, tall, regal, and frightening.
"Her name's Kristine," the guard remarked. "Don't recall her family name."
The hooded man nodded and made a circling motion with his forefinger.
"Turn around, girl," the guard demanded brusquely.
She did as the guard asked, her cheeks flushing with shame as she felt the hooded man's gaze move over her. She was bare-footed and filthy. What was left of her hair was dirty and crawling with lice. Her dress, once the color of fresh cream, was badly stained, the hem torn. And, worst of all, she smelled bad.
She heard a faint noise, like the rustle of dry paper, and realized the stranger had asked the guard a question.
"Just turned seventeen," the guard replied with a leer.
She heard the rasp of the hooded man's voice again, and then he turned away, melting into the shadows beyond her cell.
The guard followed him, pausing at the door to look back over his shoulder. "This be yer lucky day, girl. Seems his lordship has taken a fancy to ye."
"I don't understand."
"He just bought yer freedom."
Kristine staggered back, overcome by a wave of dizzying relief. She wasn't going to die.
"He'll be comin" by to fetch ye tomorrow night."
Coming for her. Tomorrow night. Relief turned to trepidation. "What...what does he want with me?"
The guard threw back his head and barked with laughter. "He says he's going ta marry ye."
"Marry me!" Kristine stared at the guard in shock.
"But…he doesn't even know me."
The guard shrugged. "What does it matter?"
Why would a stranger want to marry her? And why did she care, if it would get her out of this terrible place with her head still on her shoulders. "Can you tell me his name?"
"Why, don't you know? That's his lordship, Erik Trevayne."
Stunned, Kristine stared at the guard. She would rather lose her head that very night than become the wife of the infamous Lord Trevayne. A beheading, at least, would be swiftly and mercifully over. "And he wants to marry me? Are you sure?"
"Aye, girl. It seems a fittin" match. A murderin" wench bein" wed to the Demon Lord of Hawksbridge Castle.