“Thanks,” Arabella muttered.
“Anything for you, ma belle.”
And her teeth gnashed. How could he say things so easily when she still felt so…awkward?
As he turned his back to her and started stacking the unused bandages and ointment back into the medical kit, Arabella couldn’t help but stare at him…and marvel at how silly she had been.
With her head now thankfully clear from the IQ-lowering effects of booze, Arabella could only cringe at the memory of her cowardly ways. How could she have treated him like a monster and forget that he was the man she had fallen in love with simply because he didn’t look like other men?
Other men were overrated, Arabella thought irritably. And she had known that from the start, so why the heck did she have to act like a ninny just because he had horns?
The sight of Aurélien facing her disrupted her thoughts, and Arabella couldn’t help tensing when he clasped his hands behind his back.
The time for awkwardness, Arabella thought, has arrived. First, they would beat around the bush, testing the ice—-
“You may start anytime, ma belle.”
Arabella blinked in genuine bewilderment. “Start what?”
Making a languid gesture towards the floor, Aurélien drawled, “Grovel, of course.”
Arabella’s cheeks turned red.
“After all, you were quite cruel to me, calling me a monster—-”
“And several times, might I add—-” He paused. “So, will you do it now?” Arabella’s lips parted, but before she could answer, he beat her to speaking again. “No?”
But he only cut her off, saying, “If you don’t want to then…”
Arabella’s eyebrows shot up in panic. What? She hadn’t even managed to say a word edgewise, and now he was making it seem like she was too proud to apologize?
“Wait a fucking minute—-”
At the same time, Aurélien murmured, “Then let me be first to grovel.”
And in the blink of an eye, he was suddenly down on his knees before her.
Arabella paled. “Aurélien—-”
The beast shook its head, saying quietly, “I should be the one to grovel first, Arabella. Because we both know between the two of us, I was the one who had drawn first blood.”
Arabella exhaled painfully at the words. “Why did you?” she whispered shakily. “You just started ignoring me all of a sudden, and it hurt. It made me feel like a fool, a slut—-”
“Never,” the beast growled. “I love you, Arabella. I love you, and I never stopped.”
Its lips twisted. “Because I saw the letter on your desk.”
Her brows furrowed. “What letter are you—-” And then the memory came to her. “Oh. The one with the dead butterfly?”
Aurélien nodded grimly. “It is the symbol of The Naturalis.”
She was incredulous. “The cult that killed your father?” When Aurélien nodded again, she stammered helplessly, “I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories. I was…” And left with no choice, she had to tell him about her failed plan to search for the secret passageways he used, which then led her to discover the letter hidden in the fireplace.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized gloomily once more when she finished. “I really didn’t mean—-”
“Hush. It’s not your fault.”
“You did not kill my father, Arabella. They did. You were not the ones who attacked Louise and me that night. They did. And that’s why when I saw that letter and recognized their mark—-” The beast inhaled sharply. “It shook me. I was terrified that the same thing would happen to you, and I was suddenly ashamed of myself, to have let you in my life—-”
Arabella’s eyes flashed. “Stop!”
Aurélien’s eyebrows lifted slightly at being interrupted so suddenly.
“Don’t think like this ever again. I’m scared that if you do, you’ll find yourself pushing me away again and—-” Arabella’s eyes stung. “Just don’t, okay?”
The beast slowly nodded. “I promise, ma belle.”
“G-good.” And biting her lip hard, she said unevenly, “And now it’s my turn.”
The beast immediately shook its head. “No. I was merely teasing—-”
But still she went on, saying simply, “I’m sorry for wanting to hurt you by calling you a monster.”
“There’s no need, ma belle—-”
“There’s every need because—-” And her lips twisted. “I’m the real monster here. That time, I was hurting so much that I just really wanted to see you hurt. I wanted to see you bleed, and—-” A shattered sigh escaped her. “I don’t even know if I’m fit to love, Aurélien. Isn’t love supposed to make us better people? But when you left me, I loved you so much that I wanted you broken. My love makes me ugly—-”
“No.” The beast’s blazing blue eyes captured the gaze of the woman it loved for the first time. “Your love is what love is supposed to be.”
“How can you say that?” she demanded brokenly.
“Because it wasn’t that love made you ugly, Arabella. It was that love made you human.”
She sucked in her breath at the words, but still they stayed with her, embracing her even as she fought to shun them, forgiving her even as she was desperate to punish herself.