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Of Belles and Beaus

by Becky L. Meadows
All Rights Reserved

PROLOGUE

He walked with his head bent, his breath held in his aching chest as the icy
winter wind bit at his bare neck and ears. Spots of mud and dirt adorned the
top of his hair. His face was barely visible under the thick black-and-gray
beard that covered his chin and cheeks. Part of his body showed through the
rips and tattered remnants of the gray sackcloth pants and shirt he wore; the
skin underneath was parched red from the frigid late-fall air.

Yet, despite the cold that nipped at the edges of his mind and nearly
rendered his senses numb, his heart was gay. Freedom. He didn't bother to
contemplate at what price. He didn't care. He was free. His eyes remained
steadfast on the road as he walked toward a small group of houses, their
welcoming yellow lights signaling to the weary traveler that he was entering
a small town in 1862 France.

His footsteps came to a stuttering halt in front of a wooden house on the
outskirts of the town. He glanced up at one of the front windows, his eyes
widening at the sight of a group of people gathered around a small table. The
glee in his heart was quickly overcome with gray clouds of despair. The warm
flicker of the fireplace inside the house painted an orange hue to the drops
of condensation rolling down the windows. Warmth. Security.

Home.

It had been years since he had been wrestled away from his home by the men
in red-and-blue uniforms. He stopped and pressed his hand to his eyes as
visions of that last day erupted in his mind like a raging volcano. His
mother, her eyes glassy and wide, laying at the bottom of the spiral
staircase. His father being led away in chains. The soldier that pointed the
gun at his head and dared him to move.

He almost had. He had wanted to, badly. He had wanted to put his hands
around the soldier's throat and shake the last breath of life from him, all
the while looking in the man's eyes and smiling....

His long, dark lashes fell over his eyes as he blinked and shook his head.
The visions were still sweeping across his line of vision as he crept up the
set of wooden stairs leading to the long, covered front porch of the house.
The light called to him, welcomed his weary body and mind, and, without
thinking, he pressed his nose and hands against the cold glass of the window.

A resounding shriek greeted him.

A woman seated at the table flung herself to her feet, sending the dishes
around her on the table crashing to the floor. A large, red-bearded man at
the end of the table leaped to his feet, his startled eyes flying to the
window. He grabbed a long rifle from the wall behind him and whirled back
around to the window, but the traveler had vanished. The bearded man rushed
out through the front door of the house, his eyes skipping all around the
road and landing on the traveler only a few feet away. The man ran up behind
the traveler, his rifle in his other hand, took hold of the traveler's
shoulder and spun him around. 

The sound of the gasp of the man with the rifle echoed through the cold,still night.
The traveler's brilliantly cold blue eyes sparkled ferociously in the bright
moonlight. The bearded man recoiled and withdrew his hand from the traveler's
shoulder under the austere stare of those bright supernatural lights. The
traveler quickly sized up the man facing him: His hands were shaking, his
lips were quivering.

"Why are you staring at us through the window?" the man asked.
The traveler remained silent, his eyes focused on the man's face, which
reddened with fury. "Answer me! Are you a mute? Why were you staring at us?
What is your business here?" The man's eyes wandered over the traveler's disheveled
figure, finally landing on a black symbol on the upper corner of his tattered
gray shirt. "Ah! You're a convict, aren't you! If I see you around here
again, I won't be responsible for the outcome!" The man exhaled a deep breath
as he leveled his gaze on the cold blue eyes before him.

"I most humbly apologize if I disturbed you or your family, monsieur." The
melodic sound of the traveler's perfectly enunciated words made the bearded
man blink rapidly. He stepped back from the traveler again, his eyes
widening, the red of his face rapidly turning pale.

"You're a devil, that's what you are!" The man's words came in the midst of
his hurried gasp for breath. "It's back to prison for you!" The man whirled
around, cupping his hands over his mouth. "Gendarme! Monsieur le Mayor!
Hurry!"

The traveler's hues narrowed to thin blue slits. He took a step toward the
bearded man, his biceps knotted under his tattered shirt, and the man
instinctively flinched back. The traveler hesitated, then leaped over a set
of green bushes to the side of the road and vanished into the underbrush.
He found himself scurrying along a beaten dirt path in a thick woods. Large
tree trunks sheltered him from the wind that had been cutting through his
very bones. His feet did not hesitate when he again arrived at the edge of
the road that had cut through the heart of the small town. He peered all
around as he made his way past the town where he had been accosted.

Waves of weariness spread through his quivering limbs, and he realized with
a slight shock that he would have to rest soon. He stopped and looked down at
his ragged garments. He had nothing to cover himself with, no shelter at all from
the biting wind. He looked up, his eyes falling on the entrance to a long, dirt
road leading back across rolling green fields that became shimmering green
velvet under the bright light of the moon. He shrugged his shoulders, then
turned onto the road.

He could see black shadows of cows and horses standing in huddles in the
middle of the fields. "I suppose I'm not above sharing the warmth of a horse
for the night," he muttered, his tone dark, his face pinched with fatigue. He
had just decided to turn off the road and wander across the field toward the
group of animals when he saw the dark shadow of a large house looming in the
near distance. "If I'm to continue my journey, I can't get anywhere without a
change of clothes," he said softly. "I may find just what I need right
there!"

He approached the house with the silent stealth of a cat stalking its prey.
He crept around its outer edges, careful to keep his head and shoulders away
from the windows. He glanced at the moon and decided it must be after
midnight by now. He paused, his ears cocked, but no sound came to him.
Everyone must be sleeping. He walked to the back of the house, putting his
hand against the back door, his eyes widening as it opened without a creak
when he pushed.

His eyes darted all around. Metal pots and pans adorned the walls of the room,
along with a long, wooden table sitting right in the middle. He stepped
slowly toward a doorway leading into this room. He stared down a long
hallway. Candlelight flickered off its dark walls. He walked down the
hallway, pausing briefly before each door, then creeping up a winding,
glittering staircase in the foyer of the house, his back pressed against the
wall.

He put his fingers against the first door he came to on the second floor,
then peered around its edge. A gray-haired man lay sleeping on a large bed,
his face pale, his chest barely rising with each breath he rasped. The
traveler frowned, then shut the door before moving on down the hall.
The next door he opened led into an empty room. He stepped in, closing the
door behind him with a soft click as his eyes darted around his surroundings.
A large, dark bed was the centerpiece of the room. Candles lined the walls,
but their flames were noticeably absent. The traveler walked toward a
wardrobe in one corner of the room. He opened one of the drawers and found
several pairs of men's dark trousers. In another drawer he found a multitude
of white men's dress shirts. He walked to another corner of the room and
retrieved a bowl and water pitcher from a small wooden table, then pulled a
raiser from a pocket of his trousers.

He watched from a mirror in the room as the black-and-gray beard disappeared
from his face. His hair took on the polished countenance of a raven's wing in
the moonlight streaming through two glass balcony doors. His ragged prison
clothes disappeared under the large bed. He found a pair of black riding
boots inside the dresser. He winced as the boots pinched his toes. He rose
from the side of the bed, his entire body unfolding to his more than
six-foot-tall height.

His arctic blue stare did not change.

He hesitated a brief moment before he stepped back into the hallway and
began making his way toward the back door where he had entered. His only
thought was to escape as quickly and quietly as he had come. He had taken
about ten steps when a voice froze the blood in his veins and left his heart
quivering with shock.

"Hello there! You must be Marius!"

The traveler whirled around on his heel, his head spinning with excuses that
rushed through his mind like flood waters over a dam. He mentally commanded
his heart to stop pounding in his ears as his full lips parted in a secretive
smile. He lowered his torso in a formal bow toward the man standing before
him.

CHAPTER ONE

 She walked quickly down the street, her soft shoes silent in the loose dirt,
her eyes darting here and there. The cool, early autumn breeze ruffled her
long, dark brown curls, and she  brushed them away from her face with her
unusually long, slim fingers. The wind danced up the skirt of her brown
dress, revealing a flash of gray undergarment. Her dark brows shot up, her
full lips opened in a gasp of complete shock as she threw her arms down over
the top of the skirt.

The bell-like tinkle of her shy laugh caught the attention of a large,
robust man with thinning black hair and a ruddy face. He turned to her, his
lips curving in a delighted smile. "Bonjour, Miss Belle! The wind has excellent taste,
you know!"

"Oh! Bonjour, Monsieur Claude!" Belle stopped beside the man, her nostrils
flaring as she sniffed the crisp, freshly baked loaves of bread piled high in
a large basket sitting on a small table in front of the man. The autumn
breeze took hold of the scent and passed it along to others milling around
the narrow, dirt street in the small town of Digne in 1862 France.

"You make miracles in your oven, monsieur!" Belle's white teeth shined as
she tilted her head to the side, her green eyes roving over the ruddy face of
one of the town bakers.

"Bah! I would hardly call them miracles, mademoiselle. But what brings you
to town so early this morning? We usually don't see you until the Bishop
ventures into his garden, and then you come out of his house with a book
tucked under your arm!" Claude's mouth parted in a wide, gap-toothed grin as
a deep pink shadow crept onto Belle's cheeks. Belle's blush faded as she
watched the smile flee Claude's face when a tall, slender, gray-haired man
pushed a wooden cart past them on the street, the creaking of its wheels
calling Belle's eyes to it also. Bread was stacked three loaves high along its
polished wooden surface.

"I thought Papa might like a fresh loaf this morning." The brows of seventeen
-year-old Belle Charmagne drew down in a graceful anti-arch. "Your
competition has arrived early today," she said as her eyes roved over the
stooped figure of the gray-haired man who had stopped his cart just across
the street from Claude's small table.

Claude leaned over his table, his round chin resting on his hands, his
elbows propped on the wooden table that held his baked treasures. "Look how
neatly Garner stacks them, too! As if stacking them makes them taste better!"
Claude's words were lost to Belle, who had focused on the figure of a small
boy across the street, a small child who was creeping up to the front of the
cart of the other baker. Dark streaks of dirt were smeared across the boy's
cheeks. His dark brown hair was covered with a small cap. His black kneecaps
showed through his paper-thin brown pants. The boy dropped to his hands and
knees in the dirt street, crawling toward the cart. In a flash his hand
reached out for one of the loaves of bread. His thin fingers had just closed
over the end of the loaf when a large hand grasped his wrist and wrenched him
to his feet. His anguished yelp was overwhelmed by the angry cries of the
elderly man who held him.

"Here, you little thief! Think you'll make off with my bread, will you! I'll
teach you a lesson you won't forget!" Charles Garner, a wiry man of about
fifty years, twisted the boy's arm as he pulled him to his side. He pulled
out a long ,thick cane from behind the wooden cart. The boy's cries made
their way across the street to the ears of Claude and Belle, as did the smack
of the cane's blows.

"Can you believe that? Look! See how that demon treats that child! He
would've been better off if he had tried to steal my bread. I would've given
it to him!" Claude turned to where Belle had been standing beside him, but she had
vanished.

Tears mixed with the dirt on the boy's cheeks as Garner continued to beat
the child's body with the thick cane. Garner raised his arm to deliver
another sound blow, but a set of slim fingers wrapped around his wrist and
held it. He whirled around, his face scarlet with fury, to stare into a pair
of blazing emerald eyes.

"That's enough, Garner!" Belle's voice rang deep with the anger that had
risen to take control of her mind. "You've made your point. Let the boy go!"
Her breath came in short, furious gasps as everything in her line of vision
took on an alarming shade of red.

"What! You try to protect this worthless street urchin!" Garner raised the
cane over Belle, its end quivering as he shook it at her. "Your father should
have taught you to mind your own business!"

Belle shot Garner a withering glance, the blaze in her eyes dying in favor
of an icy stare as bitter as the cold north wind. Garner hesitated, then
lowered the cane. Belle stooped to her knees beside the small boy, her finger
wiping a stream of tears from his red cheeks. "It's all right, Gervais," she
said softly. "Go on home now. I won't tell your mother."

"What happens to this waif is not up to you!"Garner's voice quivered with rage
as he stepped toward Belle, who turned her eyes from the shivering boy
standing before her to the enraged man.

"He only wanted your bread because he was hungry! Have you no pity for the
poor?"

"I have no pity for thieves, nor those who would protect them!" In a flash
Garner brought the large wooden cane crashing toward Belle's brown locks. She
threw herself to the side, her hand reaching out with the speed and poise of
a cobra to grab the end of the cane which had crashed harmlessly on the
street, a cloud of dust rising from the impact of the blow. Belle scrambled
to her feet, her face clouded with dark fury, her jaw muscles moving as she
ground her teeth. Her heart shook with the rage that had built to the boiling
point in her breast.

Garner's eyes shot daggers at the young woman as Belle wrenched the cane
from his grasp. "You should watch who you try to strike, Garner," she hissed.
"Not everyone will stand by and take your blows like this small boy!" She
advanced toward him, the cane quivering as arctic fingers of rage crept down
her neck to her trembling arms, leaving her hands and fingers cold and numb.

Her rage began to fade as the sound of hoof beats caught her ear. Belle
whirled around to see a man on a brown horse round on them furiously, white
strings of saliva dripping from the animal's mouth. Belle's dark brows
arched, her green eyes growing round as she studied the man's red-and-blue
uniform. He strode up to the red-faced Belle and Garner, his cold green eyes
sending an immediate trickle of chills down Belle's spine.

"What seems to be the problem here?" the man demanded as he raked his
fingers through his straight, sleek black hair tied severely behind his neck.

"This harlot tried to beat me with this cane, Monsieur Inspector!" Garner
said. He flashed a secret, triumphant smile toward Belle.
 Belle's astonished gasp died in her throat under the piercing eyes of the
inspector. She tried to blurt her innocence, but her voice was nowhere to be
found; she managed only a few sputtering mumbles. The inspector's fingers
closed around her arm in a grip as sure as shackles. Her hair flayed around
her face as she struggled to break free, but the inspector's fingers only
tightened. "You'll come with me, girl," he muttered as he pulled a pair of steel
wrist cuffs from the belt of his uniform.

Complete disbelief paraded across Belle's face. "But I've done nothing," she
said. "Tell him, Garner!" Garner gave a grim smile of pleasure. The
inspector's fingers pinched into the flesh of Belle's arm as she began to
struggle again. "Let me go!" All traces of anger vanished as panic flew
through her.

"Perhaps I may be of assistance here."

The sound of the deep, melodic voice broke through the panic that had risen
to take control of Belle's mind, bringing her struggles instantly to a halt.
Her chest felt as if it would collapse; she suddenly found it difficult to
breathe. She felt the inspector's fingers loosen around her arm, and she
looked up to see his ruddy face had transformed to a ghastly shade of white.

"Monsieur le Marquis, I see no way  you can help here. This woman is accused
of attacking this man with a cane." The inspector pulled at Belle's arm, but
her legs did not move. She set her jaw firmly, her emerald hues flying to the
face of a tall man with straight black hair who stood on the other side of
the cart of bread. She followed the lines of his chiseled face, down to his
white dress shirt and black cloak which blew gently around him in the breeze.
But it was not his attire that made her breath knot like a dam in her
throat. It was the astonishing blue of his eyes. They softened and sparkled
with amusement when he looked at her, then immediately iced over when he
turned back to the man holding fiercely to her wrist.

"Perhaps this will take care of the debt. I believe I heard a small boy
being accused of trying to steal a loaf of bread. Is that not so, monsieur?"
The Marquis turned his blue gaze toward Garner, who had paled at the sound of
his voice and now trembled under his cold, regal stare. The Marquis flipped a
silver coin toward Garner, who caught it and nodded his head. "Good," the Marquis replied.
"Please, release the young woman, Inspector Traverse."

"But, Monsieur le Marquis...."

"Now, if you please, Inspector." The frigid tone of the Marquis' voice left
no room for disobedience.

"As you wish, monsieur."

Belle's hands fell to her sides as Inspector Traverse took a key from his
belt and unlocked the cuffs. She wrapped her fingers around her wrists,
massaging the area where they had bit into her skin. Belle watched,
speechless, as the inspector mounted his horse. "Perhaps we shall meet again,
mademoiselle," Inspector Traverse said as he shot her a fiery glance, then
tipped his hat in mockery toward her.

"I hope I do not have the displeasure, monsieur," Belle replied. She
grimaced as her voice quivered.

Inspector Traverse's face darkened with anger just before his lips curled in
a sardonic smile. He prodded his horse with his heels, and the animal began
walking away down the dirt street.

Cheers erupted from the crowd of watchers who had gathered around at the
first signs of trouble, but their cries were lost to Belle, whose eyes were
filled with images of the raven-haired man who had saved her from jail. She
turned to where the Marquis had stood, but he had vanished into the crowd.
Garner's eyes spat at her, however, when she turned toward him.

"I should have let you be carried off to prison, you little rat!" Garner
hissed, his face contorting with anger. "You and your no-good father! You
deserve to rot!"

"Ah! How brave the impotent Garner is when danger has passed!" Belle
swept past the older man, her arm brushing against his. She paused by the
edge of the onlookers and turned to fasten her eyes on Garner's gray ones.
"You should watch your step, Garner. You are such a staunch supporter of this
government--" Belle moved her arm in a sweeping arc for effect-- "but what
does this government really do for you, except take your money? Of course, I
suppose the new taxes don't hit you too hard when you have too much money
already!" Jeers and guffaws aimed at Garner floated through the air. Garner
opened his mouth, but Belle whirled around and melted in with the crowd.

Belle stalked past the windows of small shops painted along the sides of the
dusty street, the ruffle of her simple blue dress turning brown as it drifted
along at her feet. Her dark curls wafted in a frenzy of fury around her
shoulders, her jaw muscles moved in rhythm as she tried in vain to let go of
the fury in her chest by grinding her teeth. Her eyes flamed at nobody in
particular as she jostled through the fast-gathering crowd. The sleeve of her
dress grew taut as a small set of fingers folded around it and pulled, and
Belle wrenched her arm around. The dark scowl on her face faded as her eyes
lit on the small boy beside her.

"You said you wouldn't tell Mama, Belle. Did you mean it?

Belle looked into the wide, fear-filled eyes of Gervais. She stooped in
front of him, then reached her hand up to tussle the boy's brown hair as she
brushed some strands of it off his dirt-strewn forehead. "I always keep my
word, Gervais," she said, her eyes distant. Her smile faded into a tight
frown of angry displeasure as she spotted several large, red welts on the
boy's arms. "Did Garner hurt you?"

"Not much." Eight-year-old Gervais grinned, a wide gesture that showed the
dark crevice between his front teeth. "Mama's given me much worse, believe
me!"

"I'm sure of it, you little scamp!" Belle's grin evaporated, concern
lighting her eyes. "Come here a moment, Gervais." She took hold of the
boy's hand and led him to a small chasm between two shops on the side of the
street, then again kneeled in front of him. She brushed a stray curl away from her
temple, then tucked it neatly behind her ear.

"Gervais," she began, her voice soft yet compelling the young boy to look
into her eyes. "You must listen closely to me. You can be put in prison for
stealing a loaf of bread. Do you understand, Gervais? Do you know what prison
means?"

"I know," Gervais said, his eyes leaving Belle's to gaze at the dirt under
his feet. "I know what prison is. My father went there."

"Yes," Belle murmured. "But you do not want to go there, Gervais. Prison is
a horrible place!"

"How do you know?"

"I've heard people talk about it."

Gervais scrubbed the toe of one of his bare feet in the dirt, his hands
clasped behind his back, his body rocking back and forth as he raised his
eyes to Belle's. "We had no bread this morning, Belle. Petit Gerard, he cried
all night. He was hungry. I thought it would help if I could get some food."

Belle sighed, her eyes filled with emerald shades of sorrow. "I know what
it's like to be hungry, Gervais. I know what it's like to not have enough,
and to see other people with more than they need and more than enough to
share." Belle frowned and put her hands on the little boy's shoulders as she
peered at him, her lips pursed, her face dark. "There are ways to fight
injustice, Gervais, but stealing is not one of them. There is no honor in
stealing. Please promise me you will always remember you can go to prison for
stealing. Remember, Gervais. If they catch you, they won't care that you're a
child." Belle rose to her feet, her hand ruffling the boy's hair as she smiled.
"Now, go home, Gervais. Tell your mother I'll make enough
supper tonight so Papa can bring some by to her." Gervais gave a gap-toothed
grin and disappeared around a front corner of one of the buildings.
 

The harsh lash of a whip, coupled with the agonized cries of a man, greeted
the ears of the man sitting behind the large desk. He did not stir, nor did
he appear to notice. The cries had become all too familiar to the new mayor
of Digne. At times he would lean back in his chair behind the desk and prop
his shiny boots on its top, his head leaning back as he listened to the sound
of his justice being wreaked on public offenders. A satisfied smile of Satan
would creep across his face.

The number of prisoners in the jail compared with the number of residents in
the small town was horribly disproportionate; the new mayor subscribed to a
harsh theory of justice that was often delivered without regard for guilt or
innocence. Residents of Digne had found that even the smallest offense meant
they would be brought before the court, and a sentence from the court most
often meant time spent in incarceration. Prisoners went days without food or
water. The most heinous criminals were punished by being assigned to hard
labor, which meant days of grueling work under the hottest sun or the coldest
skies with nothing to protect them from the elements.

The mayor of Digne was often said to have the cleanest conscious of any man
in the town, yet the soft thud of footsteps entering his office made his
limbs quiver with shock before he looked up to see who had the gall to
disturb his thoughts.

"I believe you owe me the courtesy of a knock before you enter my office,
Garner." The mayor watched with an amused smile as the elderly man who had
just entered withered.

"I am most sorry, Monsieur Pinion. I am a bit flustered, I must admit. I
have just witnessed one of the most atrocious miscarriages of justice I have
ever seen. I thought I should bring it to you immediately."

"I see." Mayor Rene' Pinion of Digne rose from the chair behind the desk,
his large form casting a black shadow across Garner's face. "What have you
seen that makes you forget a gentleman's manners?" His gray-flecked brown
hair was tied severely behind the nape of his neck. The lines etched across
his brow were a testament to the many frowns that crossed his face.

"It was Belle Charmagne, Monsieur. I had just caught a street urchin who was
trying to steal a loaf of my bread. When I grabbed the boy, she threatened to
whip me with my cane. A man--I heard him called Inspector Traverse--tried to
arrest the girl, but the Marquis de Digne wouldn't let him."

"Inspector Traverse does a marvelous job for the national government, but he
has no place arresting people here. That is my duty." Pinion's face creased
with surprise. "The Marquis? What does he have to do with seeing justice is
carried out?"

"That is my point, monsieur. He should have nothing to do with it, but he
stepped in and made the inspector release her." Garner's face wrinkled as his
words quivered with fury. "She should have paid the price for interfering,
monsieur!"

"Ah! And what price would you have had her pay, Garner?"

"Perhaps a public whipping on the square. Yes, that would have served her
nicely."

Rene' Pinion walked slowly around the edge of the large desk until he stood
only a tiptoe away from Garner. A sardonic smile edged its way onto his face
as he peered down into Garner's eyes. "You would have me whip a girl on the
public square, Garner? My, she must have embarrassed you nicely!"

"She...she..."

"Enough!" Pinion barked the word and left Garner cringing. "Listen closely,
Garner. I will not have a girl whipped in public because she defended a boy
accused of stealing. Now, had you brought me the boy, he would have well
deserved to be whipped." Pinion's eyes narrowed as he pursed his lips.
"Charmagne. I have heard this name before. Who is this Belle Charmagne?"

"She is the daughter of the local artist."

"I see," Pinion muttered. He inclined his head sideways, his hands on his
hips. "I have heard this local artist is behind a plot to encourage a peasant
uprising. Is this so, Garner?"

"I have heard the same, monsieur, but I have seen nothing yet."

"Mmmm. Well, let me know if you hear anything." Pinion whirled around on his
heel and strode back behind the desk. He flung himself down in the chair,
then put his elbows on the desk top and put his chin on his hands. His eyes
studied Garner's face. "You may get your wish after all, Garner. If the
artist Charmagne is trying to encourage such an uprising, perhaps I can give
you some justice involving his daughter."

A glint of amusement shined in Pinion's brown eyes as Garner's lips twisted
in an evil smile.

CHAPTER TWO

The crunch of crisp autumn leaves under her feet wafted to Belle's ears as
she walked swiftly through the forest. Huge brown trees reached their bare
limbs toward the light blue sky and puffs of white clouds that interrupted
the sky's smoothness. Belle hummed a song under her breath, a light, lilting
melody that made her heart glad even as her soul still smoldered from seeing
Garner whip Gervais. A tornado of thoughts spun through Belle's mind; thus,
she was completely unaware of her surroundings.

Her steps slowed and stopped as she came to a clearing in the trees. The
gentle curve of a small green hill was before her. Her full, red lips parted
in a delighted smile. She took a step out of the shadow of the forest into
the sunlight surrounding the small round knoll, when suddenly a blow to her
back sent her crashing to the ground. Her gasp of surprise ended abruptly as
her last ounce of breath escaped when she hit the hard ground.

Belle could see the shadow of someone standing over her. Her lungs struggled
to take in some of the air they had lost, but she mentally commanded her
heart to stop pounding so furiously in her chest and took a quiet breath. She
lay dead-still, the emerald tint of her eyes barely showing through the small
opening between her lids. She saw the shadow lean over her form, and she had
to fight a triumphant smile from breaking onto her lips. In a flash Belle
turned onto her back, raised her feet and kicked the figure standing over her
with all her might.

She saw the black eyes under the dark brown hood widen with surprise as the
person was thrown back. The hooded figure landed with a thud. Belle pulled a
small, pearl-handled knife from inside her hooded cloak, and held it to the
figure's throat while she yanked the hood from the person's head.
She felt herself thrown from the figure. She lay on the grass again, but
this time a delighted smile made her face beam. A short, dark woman with
long, straight, black hair held her hand out to Belle and pulled her to her
feet.

"Remember what I said about keeping your wits about you, Belle! You came all
the way through the forest and didn't even see me stalking through the
underbrush beside you!"

"You almost scared me to death!" Belle said, her hand clasped to her breast.
She stooped to brush some dirt and grass from her dark brown cloak.

"Had I been a robber, you would probably have met your death, or been
carried off to some foreign land to be a slave girl in someone's harem!" The
slender, black-haired woman tilted her head back, her white teeth shining as
she gave a resounding guffaw. "That wouldn't have bothered you too much,
would it?"

"Shame on you, Levita! Of course it would!" Belle's green eyes twinkled as
she broke into a mischievous smile. "I'm saving myself for my prince
charming, you know."

"You may be waiting a long time. There are no charming princes around here."
Levita took hold of Belle's hand and led her toward the round green knoll.

"Come, we'll have some wine. It's been a while since your last visit, my
friend." They approached the hill and paused beside it. Levita placed the
palm of her hand against the hill and rubbed its green surface. She took hold
of something, then pulled. A door opened, leaving a black chasm marring the
perfectly green surface of the hill.

Belle's blinked in the darkness as she walked into the small room cut back
into the surface of the hill. Levita shut the door, then reached her hands up
to remove Belle's cloak. Belle walked toward a fireplace at the far side of
the room, her arms crossed over her chest; her emerald eyes were filled with
fear when she turned back toward Levita.

"I'm worried about Papa, Levita. That's why I have come today."

"I see," Levita murmured. She shook her head slowly side to side, her black
eyes peering into Belle's pale face. "I have seen some things, Belle. I knew
I would have to get to you to tell you about them soon." Levita sat in a
wooden chair at a small table beside the fireplace, the light from the fire
catching in red glints off her black hair. "Come, sit beside me, Belle."

Belle walked slowly to the table, the folds of her brown calico dress
rustling with her movement, and sat in the chair beside Levita. She glanced
around the walls of the room filled with curiosities from around the world,
including a monkey head hung on the back wall above the fireplace. She jumped
when Levita took hold of her hand.

Levita turned Belle's hand over, her fingertip tracing the lines across
Belle's palm. Her dark brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. Belle watched her
closely, her wide eyes studying the array of emotions sweeping across
Levita's face. Levita dropped Belle's hand, then sat back in the chair, her
hands clasping the edge of the wooden table, her eyes tightly shut. Belle
started at the fear pictured in Levita's eyes when she opened them.

"Your father is not the one who needs to be concerned, Belle," Levita said
as she reached out to clasp Belle's slender fingers in her own. A pensive
shimmer swept across Belle's eyes. She stirred uneasily in her chair as
Levita tightened her grasp on her hands. "You are the one in danger," Levita
said, a wet tear cutting a path down her dark cheek.

Belle's brows furrowed as she leaned over to wipe the tear from Levita's
cheek. "Why are you crying?" she asked. Levita turned away from Belle's
piercing green gaze to look into the fire's blue depths.

"I don't know what you did in town today," Levita said, her voice quavering.
"Whatever it was, you set off a chain of events, a horrible chain of events.
Oh, Belle!" Levita turned back to Belle, her eyes raking across the young
woman's face. "Trust me, Belle. Your father is in no danger, but you are!"

"What kind of danger?" A white flush of fear crept across Belle's face as
she leaned closer toward Levita. "What did you see, Levita?"
 "I saw prison, Belle. I saw you." Levita visibly shuddered. "I saw a
hangman's noose."

"What?" Belle exclaimed as she threw herself to her feet, the chair crashing
to the floor behind her. "A hangman's noose, for me? All I did was keep
Garner from whipping a poor boy who tried to steal a loaf of his bread! Why
should I hang for that?" Belle felt a crushing sensation in her chest as she
fought to catch her breath. "Please, tell me, Levita! What else did you see?"

"No, no more, Belle! I've told too much already!"

Belle ran and threw herself at Levita's feet, her hands clasped to the
smaller woman's shoulders. "Please, Levita! I must know!" A string of emerald
tears began to run from the corners of Belle's eyes, down her cheeks.

Levita's fear-ridden expression turned to one of pity as she gazed at the
tormented young woman. She swallowed hard. "There may be one hope, Belle. You
must put your knife away. Take it with you nowhere. Wrap it up, and put it
away in one of your drawers. If you do not have your knife, you cannot commit
the crime I saw." Levita's face paled, her eyes narrowed as she leaned back
again in the chair. "I also saw a man, a dark man, but I could not see his
features. This man somehow interfered with the chain of events."

"Papa has dark hair."

"No, Belle," Levita said, a mysterious smile painted across her face.

"Believe me, this man was not your father."

"What are you doing in there, Belle?" The sound of Victor Charmagne's voice
made Belle whirl around on her heel, her eyes fixed on the doorway to her
room which stood wide open. She silently admonished herself for not shutting
it as she pulled the pearl-handled knife from her cloak, wrapped it in a
white handkerchief and neatly tucked it into a corner of the top drawer of
her dresser.

"Nothing, Papa. I'll be in there in just a minute." Belle's hands trembled
as she softly shut the drawer of the dresser. Her gasp echoed around the
small room as she turned toward the door and found herself staring straight
into her father's large brown eyes.

"I can see from your face, Belle. What are you up to?" Victor's mouth curved
in a wry smile as he studied his daughter's face. Belle's long, dark curls
hung wildly about her slender shoulders; her lips were red and slightly
swollen from where she had bitten them during her journey back to her
father's small house and shop in town. "What have you hidden in your drawer?"
Belle sighed as she lowered her gaze to the wooden floor under her feet. She
smiled slightly when she raised her eyes back to her father's weathered face.
"It was just my knife, Papa."

"Your pearl-handled knife? The one your mother gave you? Why are you putting
it away, Belle? You always carry it with you!" Victor turned slowly around
and hobbled back toward the outer room of the building which housed the many
paintings he had for sale. Belle followed slowly after him, concerning
lighting in her eyes as she watched her father limp.

"How is your leg today, Papa?"

"Are you changing the subject on me, Belle? Your mother used to do the same
thing!" Victor's chest erupted in a sound, deep laugh. "Ah, you women!"

"I see you're limping a little more than usual. That's all, Papa." Belle sat
down at the feet of her father, who had let his figure melt into a wooden
rocking chair in front of a fireplace to the side of the room. The fire
danced off the images he had painted which lined the walls of the room.
Although Victor Charmagne's talent with a paint brush was high, money in the
village was very low, especially after people paid the new taxes the mayor
said were needed to cut crime in the town.

"If I hadn't had to be a sharecropper all those years, I wouldn't be limping
now," Victor muttered, his brown and gray hair waving over his forehead as he
waved his head side to side. "The scythes always win, the people always
lose!" His full red lips, perfect images of those of his daughter, broke into
a pleasant smile as he looked into Belle's face. "Don't you worry your pretty
head about me, Belle. I'm fine."

"Yes, that's what I hear," Belle mumbled, her eyes clouded with thought.
Victor frowned, then put his finger under his daughter's chin as he tilted
her head toward his.

"What's that, Belle? You mumble like your mother, too!" Victor's thoughts were 
cut short by the tinkle of the bell on the front door of the shop that
signaled the arrival of customers. He pushed himself to his feet and brushed
by Belle, who stood and walked slowly toward the door of her room at the back
of the shop, her head down, her hands clasped before her. She stepped through
the door and shut it softly behind her.

Victor hobbled to the front of the shop and stopped behind a large man in a
dark cloak. His face blanched as the man turned to look down into Victor's
face. "Oh, Monsieur le Mayor! Welcome!" Victor held his hand out toward Rene'
Pinion, who shot him a withering glance. "How can I help you today,
monsieur?"

"I have come to see your paintings," Rene' replied. He walked slowly along
the side of the shop, his brown eyes raking across the rows of artwork. He
paused before a picture of a small farmhouse with piles of white winter snow
around it. "This one is very nice," he mumbled. "I'm afraid it's not what I'm
looking for, though." He continued his slow trek along the side of the shop,
his eyes darting across the paintings, then turned and stepped to the other
side and began making his way down the artwork. "Yes, these are very nice,"
he said.

Rene' made his way down the other side of the shop, all the way to the
fireplace at the rear of the wall. He stopped dead-still, his eyes riveted to
a painting that hung above the fireplace. The light from the fire danced
across the emerald eyes of the woman with long, dark curls sweeping around
her shoulders. Her full lips were parted sensuously, her mouth curved
temptingly, her teeth gleaming from underneath. Wisps of her dark hair framed
her ivory face which had a hint of a blush on her cheeks.

Rene' Pinion's eyes widened. "Who is this?" he asked as he turned to the
astonished Victor. "This is the most captivating woman I have ever seen!"

"Yes, she is very beautiful," Victor replied as he stepped proudly toward
the portrait. "I'm afraid I can't take all the credit, though. I only half
made her!"

"Papa, is there something I can help with?"
 The sound of Belle's light voice made Rene' Pinion's eyes immediately flash
to her face. His brows shot up in a surprised arch as he stared into the face
of the woman pictured in the painting. Victor watched Rene's face closely,
his lips curling in a bemused smile.

"Monsieur le Mayor, may I present my daughter, Belle. This is the woman you
see in the painting."

Belle turned her head inquisitively to the side as the mayor took her hand
and gently brushed his lips across it. "I am indeed honored, my dear, to make
your acquaintance. Your father has painted a captivating image of you, but
even he has not captured your true beauty."

Belle felt the heat of a blush rise from her breast to her cheeks. The mayor
turned back toward her father, and she allowed her eyes to roam freely over
the man who had kissed her hand. Rene' Pinion towered over her father, his
gray-flecked hair drawn tightly back from his face and tied at the nape of
his neck. His black cloak enveloped his large figure, the ruffle of his white
dress shirt a stark contrast to the cloak. A smile crept onto the edge of
Belle's full lips, but it faded quickly, her soul quickly burning furiously
as visions of the hungry Gervais swept through her mind.

"Do any of your paintings have words in them?" Rene' asked Victor, whose
brows lowered in a perplexed frown.

"Why would I have the need to paint words, monsieur? I paint pictures."

"I see." Rene' turned on his heel and strode past Victor. He paused when he
stood in front of Belle. "I hope I have the pleasure of seeing you again one
day, mademoiselle."

"Perhaps then we could discuss why you believe levying heavy taxes on the
poor is just," Belle replied, her tone stiff, her eyes sparkling furiously.
Victor's face paled as his hand flew instinctively to his chest at his
daughter's forward words.

"Belle!" Victor said, his admonishing tone causing Belle to break the
eye-lock she had formed with the mayor and lower her gaze to the floor.

"No no, monsieur," the mayor said, holding his hand palm-up toward Victor.

"Please, let your daughter speak her piece." Rene' stepped to within a breath
away from Belle, then put his finger under her chin to raise her gaze to his.
His lips curled in a sardonic smile as his eyes met the emerald ice in
Belle's stare. "You have quite the spitfire on your hands here, monsieur.
Please, tell me what is on your mind, mademoiselle."

"You charge poor people such high taxes they have no money left to buy
food!" Belle's lips parted as she gasped for breath, the fury in her chest
rising to form a large lump in her throat as she started into the depths of
Rene' Pinion's eyes. Her fingers clenched into fists at her side, her nails
leaving deep red marks in her palms. "You starve our poor. Their deaths are
on your conscience!"

"I assure you, my dear, there is nothing on my conscience," Rene' replied. He
dropped his finger from Belle's chin and stepped back, his eyes roving over
her figure. He raised his eyes to hers again after his obvious look of
approval. "If people find they don't have enough money for food, they must
work more."

"There are only 24 hours in a day!" Belle replied, her tone hot, her temper
painting a scarlet flush across her cheeks.

"So pretty, and you can count, too," the mayor replied. He turned toward
Victor, who had stepped up to stand to the side of Belle. "Good day,
monsieur." He bowed toward Belle, his eyes raking coldly over her face. "Good
day, mademoiselle." He stepped through the front door of the shop, the bell's
tinkle signaling his departure.

Victor immediately moved to stand in front of his daughter. Belle's breast
heaved with fury and indignation, her eyes gleaming jade orbs of fury.
"Belle," Victor said, his tone low, his voice even. "You must not betray your
feelings like that. Rene' Pinion will not hesitate to have you thrown in
prison, and there's nothing I could do about it. Do you understand, Belle?"

Belle leveled her cold emerald eyes on her father. "Someone must do
something, Papa," she said, her teeth clenched with the fury still pounding
at her heart. "People are starving!"

"We're working toward ending that, Belle," Victor replied. He took hold of
her hand and led her toward his bedroom at the back of the shop. "Come. I
have something you must see." Victor walked to the back wall of his room, his
dark brown pants and dark shirt blending in with the shadows. He placed his
hands firmly on the wall behind his bed. In moments the wall parted and a door
swung out. Belle gasped, and her father turned back toward her, a pleased smile
on his face. "Isn't that marvelous, Belle? Such an intriguing instrument! A friend helped
me put it in place one day. He's about your age, Belle, but I haven't had a
chance to introduce you to him."

Belle gave an adventurous toss of her head as she reached to tuck a long,
dark curl behind her ear. "What's in there, Papa?"

"Come and you'll see."

Belle followed Victor through the doorway, her mouth agape, her dark
eyebrows arched as the light from flickering candles along the walls of the
hidden room danced in her eyes. Her father walked to a small table sitting in
the middle of the small room, reaching to open a chest sitting on top of the
table. He pulled out a long piece of tattered parchment paper, then turned
toward Belle, his eyes dark, his face sincere.

"Monsieur le Mayor would pay a pretty penny to get his hands on this!"
Victor said, the triumphant tone of his voice ringing through the small room.
Belle stepped to her father's side, her eyes riveted to the list of names he
held in his hand. "This is the list of people determined to overthrow the
mayor, Belle. If it ever fell into the wrong hands, it would mean certain
death for everyone on this list. Do you understand?" Belle nodded numbly.
Thoughts ran rampant through her mind, pounding at her brain, leaving her
body numb, her fingers tingling with nervousness. "We are planning to gather
evidence against the mayor and take it to the king, but if the mayor finds
out about our plan first, or gets his hand on this list, everyone on this
list would be killed immediately."

"Oh, Papa, why you? Why are you the one put in danger by holding onto this
list?"

Victor leveled his gaze on his daughter. "Because I am the leader of this
plot, Belle. I call the others to regular meetings, so we can finalize our
plans. There is still a lot to be done. Without some evidence of the mayor's
atrocities, we have nothing. The king will not believe us until we have
evidence."

"I understand, Papa," Belle mumbled.

"In the meantime, Belle, you of all people must maintain a low profile. Do
nothing to attract attention to yourself. You are my daughter, and anything
you do could not only endanger you, but me as well. Remember, Belle, if
anything happens to me, this plot could fall through and there would be
nobody to stand up to Pinion." Victor walked up and folded his daughter in
his arms, his hand stroking the back of her dark curls. "I would die if
anything happened to you, Belle! You are my life. I realize I will have to
make some sacrifices to see this plan carried through, but you will not be
one of them! You have always come first to me."
 Victor looked down into Belle's eyes, which had filled with jade tears.
"Your mother made me promise on her deathbed that I would always look after
you, Belle, but now I need your help to do that. I need you to also look
after yourself. You must make your mind control your heart."

"I promise, Papa."

"Good." Victor smiled, then released his arms from around Belle and stepped
toward the door of the secret room. "Now, come. It is time for supper."
Victor disappeared through the door.

Belle stopped, her eyes held prisoner by the parchment paper laying on the
table. She pursed her lips, then picked up a pen laying beside the paper. She
moved the pen over the paper, the scratch of its head moving over the surface
echoing in the small room, then refolded the paper and put it back in the
chest.

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