“Among mankind,” says Beauty, “there are many that deserve that name [Monster] more than you, and I prefer you, just as you are, to those, who, under a human form, hide a treacherous, corrupt, and ungrateful heart.”
~Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont,
Beauty and the Beast, 1756
June 1865, Hampshire, England
Helena Duncombe usually slept like the dead. She’d been blissfully unconscious when revolution broke out on the Parisian street below her window, then she’d slept through a fireworks show at Schoenbrunn palace. And there was the time her Madrid staff reported an earthquake had shaken the house during the night, and she’d been skeptical until finding a jagged crack in the plaster from ceiling to wall.
A frantic ride in a carriage with worn-out springs should have been a rocking cradle to her, but a creeping sense of urgency prodded her eyelids, then an ominous creaking sound jolted her awake. Knowing the devil himself rode in pursuit wasn’t the reason. Helena had acquired a sixth sense for danger and had learned not to ignore it. Sitting bolt upright proved a bad idea; her bruised lower left ribs pinched against the corset. A stab of pain robbed her breath, followed by a wave of nausea, which subdued after she swallowed a few times.
The floor vibrated, the coachman shouted, calling a halt as the creaking sound rose in pitch. The carriage rocked back and forth, taking the ruts on the shoulder of the road at the wrong angle. She braced an arm against the wall and grasped the hanging loop. A box slid from the overhead compartment and struck her on the shoulder. A curtain rod bounced off its hook, revealing a blurry glimpse of moonlit foliage. The vibration turned to a sickening splintering noise. It sounded like all the banshees of the underworld screeching at once.
One of the horses cried, cuing the others, followed by the coachman bellowing something she couldn’t make out. Rocking became veering, the front right wheel dipped into the ditch, and an eerie moment of suspension was followed by a jarring crash.
Glass shattered, branches and leaves slapped and poked her. Tumbling aft made her land hard on her back, knocking the air from her lungs. The lantern sparked then went out. She knew the drowning sensation of paralyzed lungs well enough not to panic, but the utter darkness whittled a bolt of fear through her chest. Commotion sounded outside as the men wrestled with spooked horses and mangled livery.
Her breath returned with a wheezing gasp, and she thrust about with her hands, trying to orient herself. She’d been thrown to the floor. The carriage had landed on a tilt, presumably in a hedge, judging by the branches jutting through the broken window.
A push on the door yielded nothing except brambles and glass shards; she tried the opposite side and budged it only a bit despite pushing until her poor ribs screamed in protest. The door had been bent in its frame, or perhaps the slanted angle made it too heavy. Batting away the froths of skirt, Helena propped her feet on the door, drew back her knees, then kicked with all her might.
“My lady?” called the driver. “Lady Chauncey? Can you hear me?”
“In here.” She kicked again. “The door, please, Collins.” Her voice sounded unnaturally calm to even her jaded self.
Collins pulled, she pushed. The door creaked then flew open, sending the driver sprawling back. He recovered himself in time to lift her down, apologizing when he squeezed her ribs. Her breath hitched, making her sound like a heart-shot deer. Collins knew her well enough not to ask after her well-being. A pause as he set her on her feet and a sideways glance in the weak moonlight served to communicate his concern.
“When I am not well, you will know it, because I will be dead. Otherwise, I am well enough.” Harsh words she’d repeated too often to her staff and closest friends. She simply refused to be a bore — no one wanted an inventory of what ailed her person.
Collins stuck his head inside the carriage, probably to determine which of her cases was salvageable. “I won’t know until we crawl under and have a look, but I fear the axle is split clean down the middle.” His voice muffled. The breeze chilled through the lace at her collar. “I’ve sent Ferry on to the next post for help.”
Foreboding tightened in her chest again. She wished the horses would be quiet; she desperately wanted to listen. The faint thunder could be a storm rolling off the hills, or it could be the approach of galloping horses. How much warning would she have, minutes or seconds? A shiver chasing yet more cool air down the front of her bodice made her wish she’d had time to take a heavier cloak.
Collins shrugged out of his and placed it over her shoulders without ceremony then went back to rifling around the carriage. “I’m afraid we dropped one or two, my lady. I’ll fetch it, but not until Ferry comes back. Somethin’ in the air doesn’t smell quite right, if you take my meaning.” He’d served the Duncombe family for decades, but that night she’d likely asked too much of his loyalty, involving him in a daring escape scheme. The sooner she left England, the better for everyone involved.
Helena thought they’d made good time on the road, stopping at each post only long enough to change horses, and she figured they would reach Dover by morning. Now it seemed impossible, and she was as good as lamed prey.
Collins fiddled with the latch hanging off the smallest of her trunks, the one carrying her lingerie, rolled into bundles to conceal the jewels sewn in the seams. The lid had been smashed in, but it appeared none of the pieces had been lost.
Helena paced a circle, scanning the road for signs of another carriage traveling eastward, even knowing she wouldn’t put well-meaning strangers in peril by asking for passage.
The hedge they’d crashed into looked well-manicured; perhaps she could rent a carriage from the owner of the estate. If there was a lane nearby, it was hidden in shadow. She thought she did see lights beyond the windbreak of poplar trees—
The ground vibrated a moment before she heard the staccato rhythm of horse hooves on packed earth. It could be town couriers or a rider sent to fetch the doctor, but that prickled feeling in her bones had only one meaning.
Collins was talking; he paused mid-sentence as she fumbled past what remained of the lid and grasped handfuls of fabric, which she stuffed in her skirt pockets and down the front of her bodice. If she were a more noble person, she’d have given Collins’ cloak back, but she had no idea how far she’d have to flee on foot.
“What?” Collins held the box for her as she tucked the last piece — a silk stocking — out of sight under his lapel. It was the least she could do. “Why… Lady Chauncey, what is this?”
“It’s him. I know it.”
“Couldn’t be. We had six hours’ lead.” He paused, tilting an ear in the direction of the bending road ahead, where the clopping of at least three horses grew steadily louder. He shook his head. “With all due—”
“Collins, listen. That stocking has a four-carat ruby sewn in the seam under the rosette. Use it to buy passage overseas. Now run!”
She turned and lifted her skirts, wishing she could follow her own advice. The best she could manage wearing a corset and crinoline, and not to mention three layers of petticoats, was a duck-like shuffle toward the windbreak where the faint glow of light promised the shelter of civilization if she could only reach it in time. Collins shouted after her, but she ignored him and fled from the side of the road into the foliage, where the moonlight was less likely to reflect on her brown muslin gown.
A dark stretch to the right might be a garden suitable for hiding, but it was risky; she’d been pursued this far, and he was more likely to bring hounds than give up and return home if she didn’t turn up right away. Not that she was unwilling to stand up to him; she’d already done just that. It was the consequences of doing so she feared.
The look in his eye as he’d thrashed the riding crop, a frightening mixture of rage and titillation she could only describe as demonic… he would kill her. He’d nearly killed their daughter, and when Helena had stopped him, he’d turned on her. The cracked ribs and wrenched arm would heal as usual, but then she’d done what he must perceive as the ultimate defiance — she’d let their daughter escape, then she’d run away herself.
Not quickly enough.
Feeling every bit the coward, Helena huffed and scrambled toward the light source. Her panting breath was a windstorm in her ears until the clamor of horses, livery, and riders grew louder. Judging by the shouting, it was no retinue of post riders who’d stopped at the wrecked carriage. She bunched her skirts and scurried down a slope, her feet hit cold water, then she climbed up a steep bank, only to slip and land on all fours in mud.
A patch of brush cut into her hand, but she grabbed it anyway and pulled herself to the top, where a low hanging branch steadied her feet on the slimy ground. There — a stone house, not two hundred paces. No, there was a fence in the way. But at least now with the lanterns posted on each finial, she could see the path to the gate.
A gunshot cracked, sounding quite close. She froze, half expecting a black spot to bloom on her chest. One breath in and out proved she’d not been shot, after all. Helena gathered her skirts again and made for the fence, much faster now that she’d emerged from the brush and onto the lawn. Her knees felt like jelly, and despite sucking air in heavy gasps, very little of it went into her lungs. Head spinning, ribs screaming, her legs burning with exhaustion, she almost wanted to pause and sit a moment—
“Helena!” It echoed over the wooded terrain. “Damn you, Helena! Come out here!”
His voice made her freeze again. It clawed down her spine, chilling her bones like even the sound of the gunshot hadn’t done. A whimper escaped her throat. She grabbed lower on her skirts and under the layers of petticoat, the better to run. He shouted again, but the words came muffled through the foliage. Uncaring that she’d hiked her skirts past her knees, Helena bolted, eyes focused on the gate framed by lanterns on either side — salvation.
She ran straight into it, knocking her kneecap on an iron slat. Frantically patting along the edge produced the latch, which she couldn’t see since her head cast a shadow. Her hands shook and she couldn’t control it, so no help for it anyway.
His voice came clearer — he’d found her trail, and he was closer.
“Stupid latch!” Her miserable fingers simply wouldn’t cooperate. She heard his footsteps now, plodding through the river, and the grunting and plopping noise meant he’d also discovered the muddy slope. Ahead lay more fencing, behind was indeed an unlit garden, but she’d simply be too slow. Any moment now he’d see her—
Climb! Of course. Hooking a foot on the iron filigree, she grabbed for the top and pulled. An answering stab in her lungs made her elbows buckle, and she hit her chin on the way down. Her breath sucked in then came out as shallow sobs. A hairpin came loose, and the weight of the freed curl pulled down the rest so it covered half her face. She shoved the mess back and tried again, expecting the pinch as she hefted.
Cursing and the rustle of branches… he’d crossed the ditch and was only a sprint away.
One step higher, then another. Her hand found the top of the gate, and she turned sideways to heft a leg over the other side when her foot slipped and she crashed ribs-first onto the iron bar. Her eyes watered and she grasped whatever her hands could reach, hoping the strange moment of weightlessness didn’t mean a loss of balance.
“Helena, you bitch!”
Close enough to hear his heavy breath and stomping.
Only half certain she’d manage to put herself down on the right side, Helena let go, bracing herself for impact. Her backside hit first, and it snapped her head back. Her vision went dark, then she came to with the sound of rattling metal.
Lord Chauncey, shaking the gate and yelling at her. His words bubbled in her head, gelatinous-sounding. It didn’t matter what he said; it always ended the same way. She tried to rise onto all fours, but her body wouldn’t respond. She might as well be swimming in molasses.
More shouting, more metallic noise, more blurred light and vibrations in the ground.
She’d quit breathing. The instinct to flee, however futile, made her lungs kick. She coughed and sputtered, then she rolled over and grabbed for the nearest upright object. It was warm. And solid, and her hand closed over fabric.
Dread chased between her hand and brain, as if she needed the notification that she was in trouble. It was over; she’d failed. A large, strong hand grasped her ankle and yanked.
Lord Chauncey shouting grotesque insults would be her last memory, and what a shame. Her fingers clawed into the grass, digging it up as she was dragged. So much in her life had been lovely; the white beaches and blue-tiled roofs of Santorini. The Emmanuel bell of Notre Dame on liberation day, the chilled froth of chocolate mousse made in a hilltop abbey overlooking Madrid… She thought she heard church bells now, low and ominous, a beautiful, sad sound, appropriate for the occasion.
Somehow it always came as a cruel surprise, even when she saw it coming. The first blow struck low on her back, then on her arm, where it already hung limp from being wrenched backward the previous day. Pinching her shoulders, he spun her around and shouted some more, which she couldn’t understand, only smell. Butter rum mixed with something more potent. Herbal-smelling, probably absinthe, she noted uselessly.
Usually she wept and pleaded and cajoled, trying to soothe him out of his temper in hopes he’d calm down enough stop once he was done with her, but this time she’d begun with empty reserves. And really, she hadn’t much to lose now. Sophia was gone.
He shook her, rattling her teeth. “Where is she?”
Helena finally understood what he wanted. “Far away. Scotland. Prague. Boston. Who knows? Even I have no idea.”
He growled and started shouting again as his fingers bit into her arms, shooting nervy pains into her bones.
She must truly be at wit’s end; sound and sight wavered as though under water.
“Where? Tell me where, damn it all, or I’ll throttle you!” He ripped the lace at her collar, and silk spilled out, the pieces concealing her contraband jewels. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Go ahead. Squeeze blood from a stone, Alfred.” Improbably, a bubble of laughter escaped; she couldn’t help it. Nothing was humorous, but the truth — that her daughter was safe — kept her above the moment, as though it wasn’t really happening.
With a snarl he raised his hand, and she waited for his fist to strike.
It didn’t land.
His hand loosened on her collar and she stumbled, surprised at being let go. She grasped for the fence then leaned against it, trying to stay upright.
Outlined in lamplight was the figure of a man with his hands raised. His shirt billowed and his hair hung loose, but she couldn’t make out his face. His voice rolled in low tones, a stark contrast to Chauncey’s strident voice. Her back to the fence, she lowered herself to a sitting position, wondering why she could barely breathe and why her senses seemed to fade, giving the sensation of floating away.
The male voices rose in volume, Chauncey flailed and struck, and the man ducked just as Chauncey charged. Whoever he was, the man was going to be badly injured; Chauncey was a hulking man and a hardened soldier, and worse, lacking in scruples.
More noise, more scuffling. Vaguely she saw limbs striking and clothes moving, making weird shapes and shadows in the weak golden light.
Her ribs. The corset. Finally she recognized the exertion- and pain-induced stupor. Lethargy would follow, then she’d faint unless she could draw a free breath. She concentrated on slowing her breathing. Flexing her fists helped calm her pulse. Sitting against the fence, facing the house, spires came into focus. Mullioned arches, lead-framed Gothic windows topped with crosses — not a house, but an abbey.
She hadn’t imagined church bells a moment ago.
An idea landed like a brick in her head. Subconsciously she’d been drawn to this place, and now she knew why. Helena pulled on the iron slat to rise to her feet, holding her breath until the stabs of pain faded from her ankle, ribs, and arm. “Sanctuary!” she wheezed. The men’s voices drowned the sound. They were locked in some sort of struggle.
“Sanctuary!” she shouted. “I claim sanctuary!” She had to yell it twice more before the men broke apart, heaving for breath.
“Sanctuary?” Lord Chauncey scoffed. “You can’t claim asylum. You’re my wife.” He made a move in her direction, but his way was blocked by the man with the billowy shirt and long hair.
“On the contrary, she can.” His voice came low and smooth, almost lazy if not for the hint of steel in the tone. He shifted to place himself between her and Chauncey. “By law, it’s my right to enforce it, sir.”
“An antiquated custom.” Chauncey’s words slurred, and even in the dark, she knew his face flushed red with rage. “And there’s been no crime, no magistrate presiding. This is hardly the medieval age, and I’m Viscount Chauncey!”
“Lord Chauncey? Of Eastleigh?” The man sniffed as though saying the name emitted a foul odor. “You are the Hampshire Country magistrate. Preside away.”
“There’s no criminal—”
“She is a fugitive, which places her under the protection of the rectory for forty days.”
“Absurd.” Chauncey spat on the ground, followed with a string of foul curses. He pushed at the man again, who gave not an inch and returned a shove that made Chauncey flail.
“Call it what you will, but the law is still in effect.”
Chauncey grunted and threw a fist, which his opponent caught midair. Their hands locked in struggle, shaking.
“Transgress it at your peril, my lord.” He threw his weight forward, and Chauncey stumbled backward until he collided with the fence.
Another curse — Chauncey reached behind his waist, and lamplight glinted on the barrel of a pistol he pointed at the man. The bottom dropped out of Helena’s stomach, and the hope of rescue that had unfurled a moment ago was utterly crushed by awareness of what she’d done. An innocent bystander was about to die. Whether out of naiveté or miscalculation, it was her fault. With a disconcertingly steady hand, Chauncey turned it on her, she was weirdly relieved.
“Hand over my wife. Now.”
“Lower your weapon.”
“Not until you give way.”
Another subtle movement, and the man placed himself in front of her again. “I didn’t take her. And she’s not yours to retrieve, not for forty days.” His voice rose as he said, “By law, I order you from the premises. You trespass on holy ground with violent intentions. That is a prosecutable offense, even for a viscount.”
Chauncey began to argue when the sound of a rifle chambering made him freeze. She couldn’t see, but the noise had come from the direction of the house. Long seconds ticked by with only riled breathing to fill the silence.
Shouting came from across the field, likely Chauncey’s henchmen catching up.
Chauncey swore then apparently knocked over the cement statuary lining the fence. “No matter.” He gave a bitter laugh. “I’d like to see her stay anyplace for forty days. And I can find Anne-Sophia without you.” He struck something else, a metallic object that rang with a dull twang. “Stupid whore.”
“You test my patience,” the man said.
Chauncey muttered something Helena couldn’t make out, followed by the waning noise of his boot steps. He shouted, the others in the field answered, but even that faded. All the while, the man stood at the gate, motionless, watching with an intense vigilance that made her wonder who he could be. The lanterns cast his profile in harsh golden light; craggy features, a heavy brow, and a stern, unforgiving cut to his shoulders.
After what seemed like a quarter hour of silent observation, he finally turned. His appearance didn’t improve much with the front view, but she had half a mind to kiss his feet if he stood close enough to reach.
“Best get you inside, my lady.” He approached and offered a hand, which she took out of desire not to collapse should her knees liquefy again. He grasped her hand in his warm, roughened one then tucked her under his arm. They walked slowly toward the darkened arch framing giant wood doors, flanked by the rifleman. Not until she neared the steps did she see that it wasn’t a man at all, but a silver-haired woman clutching a rifle, looking like she knew how to use it. She traded glances with the man and wordlessly followed him inside where a massive hearth blazed with a fire.
Alone with two strangers whom she trusted with her life.
The sound of iron-banded doors locking shut had never been so beautiful.