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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
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Genevieve's other hobby was reclining in her lounge beside the window and watching the neighbors for signs of anything scandal
ous, which she related to her bosom friends in shocked tones when they came to call.

She should write a book about the neighbors,
Bella thought with amusement.
She probably knows more about them than they know themselves.
Most of it was made up out of the scraps that she actually
saw,
of course. They certainly would not recognize Genevieve's version of them.

“Good evening, Genevieve!” Bella said cheerfully. She had, from the beginning, refused to call her stepmother by that name or any other that would not put her on equal footing with the woman. From the time she had been only thirteen, she'd been running her father's household. When the new stepmother arrived on the scene she had known enough to be cautious about the other woman's position. “Wait until you see what I have found for you tonight!”

Whatever irritated or insulting thing Genevieve might have been prepared to say died on her lips, and she leaned forward eagerly, the ribbons and lace on her nightcap trembling with anticipation. “What do you mean, for me, Bella, dear?” she asked instead.

“I mean I know your taste, so I dedicated this evening to finding things
just
for you. After all, I can have a rummage whenever I want.” She sat on the tall stool the maid provided for her. “Thank you, Elise,” she acknowledged, and cradled the basket in her lap, removing the cloth that covered it. “Now, here is the first piece. Did you ever
see
such a lace flounce! It will make a splendid fall from a high collar, and this little bit of narrow stuff matches it, see?” She put the two together. “So, perfect for a winter gown to protect the throat from drafts, with the flounce guarding your delicate chest. Yes?”

Genevieve's hands caressed what really was a magnificent fall of softly pleated lace. “There was only the one?” she asked.

“Only the one. I think it was a sample. And here is a mother-of-pearl flower to pin it with.” Bella placed the carving among the
ruffled lace. “And since I think it would be a dreadful shame to have such a lovely winter gown and not go somewhere in it, here is a matching box for your medicines.” A matching, carved comfit-box joined the growing pile. “You might get too warm, seated by a fire, and I found a fan with mother-of-pearl sticks.” A white silk fan with simple iridescent guards and sticks, riveted with silver, joined the rest. “And here are some samples of fabric that I thought might make a lovely gown to go with all this. I checked and there are enough to make up into a single gown. And last of all—” She pulled out lovely ermine skins and laid them on the counterpane. “Here you are—the makings of the finest tippet in the city. I don't think the Queen would be able to boast of such a fine piece.”

Genevieve's mouth made a pleased little O and she caressed the furs with pleasure while she and Bella discussed which of the fabric samples would be best for what purpose.

Or rather, she dictated, Bella noted it all down on scraps of paper, which she pinned to the samples, and said very little. But after all, the gown wasn't for
her,
was it?

And if she thought it was a touch overdone, well,
she
wouldn't have to wear it.

“Here you are, Elise,” Genevieve said at last, sweeping it all into the basket again and giving it into the hands of her maid. “Make sure it's all taken care of in the morning.”

“Yes, Mistress,” the maid replied, with a little curtsy. And she would, too. Snobby Elise might be, but she was very efficient.

She would also make sure that at least one length of the rejected fabric was sent for and found its way into
her
possession, where she would skillfully create a gown of her own from it. Elise was the best-dressed ladies' maid in the city; this was not the first time such a thing had happened.

As Elise left the room with the basket, the twins swept in with
their treasures. These were more modest finds: embroidered kerchiefs, a necklace of her namesake stone for Amber, another carved mother-of-pearl brooch for Pearl, furs to make muffs and a lined bonnet for skating.

This, of course, led to “And as we were coming home, Bella said there would be snow and the ponds would be frozen soon!” and pleas to be allowed to attend skating parties. “We're old enough now!” Pearl asserted.

With calculation, Bella had presented her finds. Now Genevieve would have a
reason
to wear a magnificent new, warm gown. She could attend the skating party and retire with the other parents when she got the least bit chilled, leaving the twins with their governess.

Which led to something all the doctors had told Bella, and which she had not told anyone, not even her father—although she was sure he knew it very well, and that they had been telling him this at least weekly for a long time.
“More outdoor air will cure that headache faster than any medicine, and more outdoor exercise will mean less stiffness and fewer aches.”

So Bella left the twins chattering to their mother, all three of them as animated as she had ever seen them. She smiled to herself as she closed the door to her room. That should keep all three in good spirits for at least three weeks.

And that is all to the good for me!

2

AS USUAL, BELLA WAS UP AT DAWN; SHE, AND NOT
Genevieve, was the one who was truly in charge of the household, and had been, more or less, since her own mother died when she was ten—roughly half her life now that she thought about it. Not that there was an inordinate amount of work to be done; the servants were all good, reliable and mostly managed things very well. Still, someone had to be in charge, or there would be all manner of jockeying for the right to have the last say in things; that was just the way that people worked.

Getting up at dawn just was not a hardship when you didn't attend parties that went long into the night, didn't linger at dances until you were exhausted and didn't indulge in too much rich food and wine that kept you up all night. In the winter it wasn't
fun,
certainly—it was cold and dark, and until you got the fires going again, you had to bustle about the house bundled up to your eyes. But that was more than made up for by glorious spring and summer mornings when everything was cool and fresh and smelled delicious, and the very air was as intoxicating as any wine.

When the household—downstairs at least—was up and function
ing, Bella went back to her room and bundled into her bed. Not to sleep—this was when she did the household accounts, with a nice cup of hot sweet tea and a buttered muffin.

By the time she was done, the fires had warmed the house and it was no longer a trial to be up and doing.

When she had approved the menus for the day, unlocked the wine cellar, mildly scolded the boy who cleaned the fireplaces for carelessness that had nearly ruined a rug and praised the scullery maid who had saved it, checked the pantries, approved the shopping list and paid the tradesmen's bills, it was time for Genevieve, Pearl and Amber to wake. She liked to be out of the house by then, as it allowed Genevieve the illusion that
she
had the ordering of the household, as the housekeeper presented her with menus and shopping lists she never read, bills that had already been paid and a vague report on the servants. Sometimes Bella had heard Genevieve boasting—or sighing—about all the work she was put to in order to keep the household in order, and she had just shaken her head.

By afternoon, however, Bella was free. The twins would be engaged with some lesson or other—a foreign language, dancing, watercolor painting or attempts to learn a musical instrument—which so far had come to nothing although their singing was superb. Genevieve had at least three friends in her rooms for a good gossip. Now was a good time to escape.

Today was the day for another of those activities on Bella's part that made Bella's stepmother roll her eyes, for today she had planned to visit Granny.

Everyone in the city knew Granny, whether they admitted it or not. Granny was a fixture. There had been a Granny at Granny's Cottage for generations. She might or might not actually be a witch; no one would say, and Granny was very closemouthed on the subject. Officially Granny was the Herb Woman, the doctor for those
who could not afford doctors, the confidante and giver of advice for those who had no granny of their own, and the dispenser of wisdom that had passed the test of time.

As such, of course, she was exceedingly unfashionable and not the sort of person that the Beauchamps should be associating with, in the mind of Genevieve at least. No one of their status went to an Herb Woman; they had doctors come to attend them.

Bella stopped by the kitchen and put together a basket of the sorts of things Granny liked best: a bottle of sweet wine, a block of good yellow cheese, the end of the roast beef and the ham, and a pound of butter preserved in a jar. Granny was quite self-sufficient; she grew all her own vegetables, had chickens and had good trade in her herbs and medicines for just about anything else she needed, but Bella liked to bring her little luxuries. That was trade in a way, too; the goodies for Granny's teaching. Bella was fascinated by the art of healing, but of course it was completely impossible for a woman to become a doctor, and even if she could get the training, who would use her services? Perhaps in a place where there were no doctors—but not here, in this neighborhood. The doctors wouldn't think kindly of competition, and Genevieve would be mortified.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Bella saw herself doing what Granny did one day, though probably not out of the cottage in the middle of the woods. That would be for another Granny—someone this Granny was working with even now, Bella suspected—and anyway, she knew that she was much, much too young to be trusted as Granny was trusted.

When the kitchen staff realized that she was going to visit Granny, she found the basket taken away from her and filled with other tasty odds and ends: some uneaten tarts from last night's dinner, honeycake from breakfast, a parcel of bacon ends and rinds. She flung a
bright red cloak with a hood over herself, gathered up her basket and went out into the cold.

The hooded cloak—a riding cloak—was entirely inappropriate for a young lady; it had been her father's, from the days when he still had time to go foxhunting with the gentry. But it was warm and cheerful, and besides, when she went out into the woods, she had no desire to be taken for a game animal and shot.

As she made her way out of the city, taking the route that led her down a street lined with shops that catered to this neighborhood, she reflected on her own future. Now, what she had in mind was a little shop with living quarters above, perhaps in a neighborhood that had no Apothecary. If the twins were married and she was left a spinster, she had an independent settlement in her father's will, which would more than pay for such a thing. And the truth was, such an outcome was very likely. Try as she might, and she did try, she just couldn't picture herself married.

She nodded to the poet from next door in a friendly fashion as he emerged from the butcher's with what was clearly a goose done up in brown paper under his arm. He saluted her with a grin and passed on, and she smiled to think how horrified her stepmother would be to know he was doing his own shopping. Now…if she could find a young man like
that…

Alas, thus far, she hadn't met any young man of any station that she would have been willing to consider with warmer feelings than mere friendship. She wanted intelligence, and she required that a young man be willing to accept her as his partner, not regard her as his possession, his inferior, his toy, his casual companion or his convenience. So she was very likely to end up a spinster. Certainly Genevieve was not going to put forth any effort to get her married, not when she had two of her own girls to get properly “placed.”

Deep in thought, she was startled to find herself at the city wall,
where guards oversaw everyone coming in and out. She knew most of them on sight, and waved to Ragnar as she approached.

“Bella Beauchamps!” Ragnar saluted her. “Going out to visit Granny?”

“Well, it is certainly too cold to gather mushrooms, even if one could find them under the snow!” she said, laughing. “Ragnar, you look half-starved. Isn't that wife of yours feeding you properly?”

He looked sheepish. She laughed and tossed him a honey pastry.

Ragnar's appetite was legendary, and twenty wives probably couldn't have kept him fed.

“You be back before dark, Bella,” Ragnar warned, as he held back a donkey cart to let her pass through the narrow gate. “The winter's bound to bring out hungry beasts.”

“I'll be careful,” she promised, and pulled the red hood of the riding cloak up over her head.

Before long she was very glad of her sheepskin boots, no matter how unfashionable they were, for the snow was well above her ankles. A few tracks in the path showed that she was not the only visitor to trudge out to Granny's Cottage, though it was a curious thing that in all the time she had been visiting the old woman, she had never met anyone either coming or going. Strange.

Bella had first met Granny when one of Genevieve's former doctors, laboring under the delusion that Genevieve actually
was
ill, had sent her for “some of Granny's nerve tonic.” Needless to say, that doctor had not lasted in Genevieve's employment long, but Bella had continued to go out to Granny's Cottage.

The woods were lovely—but undeniably hard to get through with this much snow on the path. Anyone who came out to the cottage in weather like this was someone who definitely needed Granny and no one else.

The path followed an easy course between two low hills or ridges,
which blocked the wind. It was extremely quiet; nothing more than the occasional call of a starling or caw of a crow somewhere above the snow-frosted, bare branches of trees. Bella found it rather restful actually, a great relief from the chattering of servants and the twins.

“Hold there, woman!” barked an imperious voice from up the ridge, startling her so much that she nearly dropped the basket.

Down off the ridge stalked possibly the last person she would ever care to meet out here—the Gamekeeper, Eric.

So far, she had managed to avoid the fellow, except for seeing him at a distance or across a market square, but Granny was full of stories about him, none of them flattering, and nothing Bella had seen was inclined to make her doubt them. He was full of his own importance, unremittingly cruel in enforcing the laws against poaching, arrogant and clearly convinced he was the most desirable man in the city or out of it.

He granted her a long, leisurely view of his magnificence as he made his way down the ridge, and it was true that if it had not been for the faint sneer on his lips and the arrogance of his carriage, he could be thought of as handsome. Without his mask, the chiseled features, the fine head of sable hair and the muscular body displayed to advantage by his closely laced leather tunic and trousers probably caused susceptible hearts to flutter. But Bella did not in the least like the set of his chin, nor the speculation and anticipation in his cold blue eyes. Another girl would have been intimidated. Bella knew she had the protection of her rank—but even if she hadn't, she was not going to back down to this bully.

“Poaching, eh?” he said as he drew within a few paces of her.

“Scarcely,” she snapped back. “Not everyone out in the woods is a poacher, and if I
were,
I would not be so stupid as to trudge about openly on the path to Granny's Cottage.”

She startled him; obviously he was not expecting a mere woman to stand up to him. His eyes narrowed, and his lips compressed into a thin line. “Well, we'll just see about that,” he snarled. “Turn out that basket!”

“And just who are you to order me about?” she retorted, holding the basket close to her body when he made a grab for it. She had begun angry; now she was furious, and that fury drove out any vestige of fear.

“Woodsman Eric von Teller!” he barked. “Now turn out that basket!”

Anger did strange things to her. It made her think more clearly, and her thoughts moved faster than usual.

He was trying to intimidate and humiliate her. Very well, she would give him a taste of his own arrogance right back.

“Oh.” She sniffed derisively, looking down her nose at him. “The Gamekeeper.” He reddened as she opened the lid of the basket and turned back the cloth so he could see that there was nothing more sinister in there than ham and beef. “There. No snares, not so much as a pheasant feather nor a tuft of rabbit fur.” He made to grab for it, anyway, and she pulled it away.

He smiled nastily; whatever thoughts were going through that head of his, he still hadn't realized that he wasn't dealing with a peasant or some little servant girl. “So, woman, playing the coy with me? Do you want me to come take that basket from you?” He made a grab for her arm, but she evaded him. She thought about kicking him, but decided against it. She didn't want to goad him into retaliating physically.

He swore as he stumbled over a rock in the snow, and whirled to face her. “Little vixen! I think you need a touch of taming down, and I am just the man to do it!”

Her cheeks flamed, but with rage, not with embarrassment.
She straightened her back. “I generally find that a man who bullies women is one who is a coward before men,” she said cuttingly. “By all the saints, Gamekeeper, you should be tied to the tail of my horse and whipped for your insolence!”

He started again, suddenly realizing that she was not what she seemed. She glared at him. “I am Master Trader Henri Beauchamps's daughter, and I am not to be trifled with. You have seen that I have not been poaching, now be on your way, and be grateful that I am too busy today to bother with punishing your insolence!” She raised her chin and stared down her nose at him, aping Genevieve at her most superior. “Your manners leave a great deal to be desired. You had better mend them and learn your place before you encounter someone less forgiving than I.”

He started again at her father's name, and his eyes darkened further with anger at her threat. But he backed away, and made a sketch of a bow.

“I beg your pardon, Mistress Beauchamps,” he said, making a pretense of groveling. “I thought you were a peasant wench—”

She thought about giving him a tongue-lashing there and then. Thought about ordering him to take her to his master so she could report his behavior.

But on second thought, doing either of those things would do no good and potentially much harm. She knew he wouldn't dare raise his hand to her, but he would take out the anger such a dressing-down would build in him on the next helpless creature that had the misfortune to cross his path. So instead, she continued aping Genevieve. The insults would get under his skin like screw-thorns.

“Be off with you,” she said, haughtily. “I do not care to waste more of my time with your foolishness than I already have.”

He bowed again, and slunk off into the forest. She stood there for a moment longer, still shaking with anger and taking long, deep
breaths to calm herself down. Only when she was certain of her own temper again did she continue her journey.

BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
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