The Black Beast of Belleterre: A Victorian Christmas Novella
The Beauty and the Beast: a haunted and hidden lord, a desperate young beauty, and a marriage of convenience between two people who yearn for more…
James Markland, Lord Falconer, knows that he is ugly, very ugly, and he lives a life of seclusion, wearing a heavily cowled mantle to conceal his face from the world. When he learns that a neighboring girl, the exquisite young Ariel Hawthorne, is about to be sold into marriage with a revolting lecher, he offers her the only protection he can: his name. Of course it will be a marriage in name only, because what woman could want him?
A talented artist, Ariel is cursed by her beauty and vulnerability. Though she never sees her husband’s face, she is drawn to his kindness and generosity, but he is determined to push her away. Will he allow her to love him before it’s too late? Perhaps the magic of Christmas can bring them together…
This seasonal stand-alone Regency novella is also published in the author’s Christmas Revels collection.
What readers say:
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The butler admitted Falconer and left him in a drawing room at the front of the house, saying that Sir Edwin would be with his guest in a moment. Falconer smiled mirthlessly. If the baronet had the money, he would have been waiting with a bank draft in hand. Now he was probably in his study trying desperately to think of a way to save his profligate hide.
Falconer was pacing the drawing room when he heard the sound of raised voices, the baronet's nervous tenor clashing with the lighter tones of a woman. The drawing room had double doors that led to another reception room behind, so Falconer went through. The voices were much louder now, and he saw that another set of double doors led into Sir Edwin's study, where the quarrel was taking place. The baronet was saying, "You'll marry him because I say so! It's the only way to save us from ruin."
Though Falconer had never heard Ariel's voice, he knew instantly that the sweet, light tones belonged to her. "You mean it will save you from ruin, at the cost of ruining me! Even I have heard of Gordstone! The man is notorious. I will not marry him."
Falconer felt as if he had been struck in the stomach.
Gordstone was indeed notorious--a pox-ridden lecher who had driven three young wives to their graves. Not only did he have an evil reputation, but he must be over forty years older than Ariel. Surely Sir Edwin could not be so vile as to offer his only daughter to such a man! Yet Gordstone was wealthy and Ariel's father needed money.
In a feeble attempt to sound reassuring, Sir Edwin said, "You shouldn't listen to backstairs gossip. Lord Gordstone is a wealthy, distinguished man. As his wife, you'll have a position in London's most amusing society."
"I don't want to be part of London society!" his daughter retorted. "All I want is to be left alone here at Gardsley. Is that so much to ask?"
"Yes, dammit, it is!" the baronet barked. "A girl with your beauty could be a great asset to me. Instead, you hide here and play with pencils and paints. In spite of your lack of cooperation, I've managed to arrange a splendid marriage for you, and by God, you'll behave as a proper daughter and obey me!"
Voice quavering but defiant, Ariel said, "I won't! I'll be twenty-one soon. You can't make me!"
She was stronger than she looked, that delicate, golden girl. But even as the admiring thought passed through Falconer's mind, he heard the flat, sharp sound of flesh slapping flesh and Ariel cried out.
Sir Edwin had struck his daughter. Nearly blinded by rage, Falconer put his hand on the knob to the study. He was about to fling the door open when he heard Ariel speak again. "You won't change my mind this way, Papa."
Though he could hear tears in her voice, she did not speak as if she had been seriously injured, so Falconer paused, his hand still on the doorknob. What happened between Sir Edwin and his daughter was none of his business. If he intervened, the baronet would surely punish the girl for it later, when her champion was not around.
"I'll find a way that will change your mind," Sir Edwin snarled. "If you don't marry Gordstone, you won't have a roof over your head, for Gardsley will have to be sold. Then what will you do, missy? Go to your room and think about that while I talk with that ugly brute in the drawing room. If I can't persuade him to give me another extension of my loan, I'll be a pauper, and so will you."
Falconer turned and retreated noiselessly to the drawing room at the front of the house. He was standing there, looking out the window, hands linked behind his back, when the baronet entered the room.
"Good day, my lord," Sir Edwin said in a voice of forced amiability. "You've come just in time to hear good news. My daughter is about to contract an advantageous alliance, and I will be able to repay you out of the settlement money. You need only wait a few weeks longer, for the bridegroom is anxious for an early wedding."
Falconer turned and stared at his host. As the silence stretched, Sir Edwin became increasingly nervous. Falconer knew that his stillness disturbed people. Once, behind his back, someone had said that it was like being watched by the angel of death.
When he could bear the silence no longer, the baronet said, "Are you unwell, my lord?"
After another ominous pause, Falconer said, "I've already extended the loan twice. Since Gardsley is your collateral, I can have you evicted from here tomorrow if I choose."
Sir Edwin paled. "But you can't ruin me now, not when a solution is so close at hand! I swear that within a month…"
Falconer cut the other off with a sharp motion of his hand. "I can indeed ruin you, and by God, perhaps I will, for you deserve to be ruined."
Almost weeping, the baronet said, "Is there nothing I can do to persuade you to reconsider? Surely it is the duty of a Christian to show mercy." He paused, groping for .other arguments. "And my daughter ... will you destroy her life as well? This is the only home she has ever known."
His daughter, whom the villain proposed to sell to Gordstone. Falconer's hands curled into fists when he thought of that golden child defiled by such a loathsome creature. He could not allow the girl to marry Gordstone. He could not. But how could he prevent it?
An outrageous idea occurred to him. To even consider it was wrong, blasphemous. Yet by committing a wrong, he could prevent a greater wrong. When he was sure his voice would be even, Falconer said, 'There's one thing that would change my mind."
Eagerly Sir Edwin said, "What is it? I swear I'll do anything you wish."
"The girl." Falconer's voice broke. "I'll take the girl."