“D’accord. Now sleep, ma belle.”
“Say you promise.”
“Croix de bois, croix de fer. Si je mens, je vais en enfer.”
With her eyes still closed, Arabella sighed and mumbled, “Michelle, ma belle, sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble.”
The beast choked. Had she just answered him with lyrics from Beatles song? It would have laughed if it could, but seeing that Arabella had already fallen asleep, the beast contented itself with a stolen kiss on her lips.
“Sweet dreams, ma belle.”
And then the beast lay on its back, listening to the melody of her heartbeat while it waited for evening to pass. Just before dawn broke, the beast gently pulled away from Arabella, and it was about to leave when something caught its eye.
Wondering how Arabella could come across such an old letter, the beast picked it up—-
And that was when it saw the dead butterfly etched on the paper in human blood.
It was the symbol of The Naturalis.
AS THE MOON SLIPPED away from its dark throne, a shadowy figure could be seen leaping across great heights. Trees swayed in its wake, and as the beast crossed over the still waters, it caught sight of its reflection.
Desolation stared back at its haunted blue eyes, and the beast roared, the sound rippling through the island like an echo of one bloodstained memory from the past. The beast loped faster, straining its powerful muscles to traverse longer distances. But no matter how far it went, it could not run away from the feelings that now gripped its heart like a vise.
Exhaustion claimed its victory in the end, and the ground shook as the beast landed on all fours, its claws tearing through the hard-packed soil. Its breathing was harsh, and its powerful body still shook from the hours it had aimlessly roamed throughout the night.
How could it have let itself forget its vow?
What would it do if Arabella suffered the way Louise Baldwin had – and all because she had made the unforgivable mistake of loving a beast?
The beast lifted its anguished gaze to the spread of blackness above.
What could it do to stop itself from loving again?
When Arabella woke the next day, the first touch of reality that accosted her was the empty space on the other half of the bed. It broke her heart just a little, but Arabella quickly pushed all her fears and doubts away. It was already daylight, and of course Aurélien had no choice but to leave her side before sunrise.
As she took her bath, she found herself doing the silliest things. Dancing instead of walking, humming even when she couldn’t carry a tune, and oh, Arabella even took the time to run a brush through her dark tresses a hundred times. She had read somewhere that it was the secret to making one’s hair shine, and silly or not, she wanted to look her very best—-
Because tonight, she thought dreamily, everything would change. She didn’t know why she was sure of it, only that she was.
Throughout the day, she would find herself sighing and giggling as she lost herself in daydreams, so much so that the staff had started to tease her. “Perhaps it’s because the master has finally proposed,” Nana asserted loudly while sweeping the dust off the figurines that graced the main hallway.
Arabella, who had been on her way out, choked and tripped over her feet, causing Nana to burst into laughter and the younger maids to giggle among themselves.
Even Maurice noticed the change in her during their regular calls, with her father commenting that she looked particularly pretty.
“You’re imagining things, Papa,” Arabella stammered.
Maurice shook his head. “You’ve always been a lovely little thing, my dear, but today…” A hopeful look flashed on her father’s face. “Oh, my dear, is it because your, err, man has promised to turn a new leaf for you? Are you getting married? Are you pregnant?”
“Papa!” Arabella quickly disabused him of such notions and afterwards, she made an excuse about needing to hang up. Maurice could be persuasive if he wanted to, and she didn’t want to risk accidentally blurting out anything about her and Aurélien.
Dinner was the most rushed affair, with Arabella managing to convince the chef to serve her a single course as his birthday gift to her. And as she walked away and rushed to the stairs, she heard a chorus of voices from the kitchen, wishing her good luck.
Oh, for goodness’ sake!
When she finally reached the tower room, her heart was beating madly, and she was breathless and giddy. She opened the door, wondering all the while what she would say.
But there was only silence.
He probably wanted to surprise her, Arabella thought with a smile.
She closed the door behind her, changed into a rather skimpy nightgown that she had never found the courage to wear until now, and dived under the covers.