The Beauty's Beast
Book 1 in the Beauty's Beast Series
Lady Kathryn’s father sends her to court to find a husband, but being penniless and disinterested doesn’t bode well for her success. Bored by the petty intrigues of court, her frustration and loneliness are eased when the king charges her with the care of his newest acquisition: a wolf he and his hunters have recently captured. What the king doesn’t realize is his remarkable pet was once Gabriel, his favorite knight, cursed into wolf form by an unfaithful wife.
The beast’s uncanny intelligence and human-like behavior convince Kathryn that he is more than what he seems. Resolving to help him, she doesn’t count on the greatest obstacle being Gabriel himself. The longer he stays in wolf form as a captive of the court, the harder it becomes for him to remember his humanity and to fight his wolfish urges to maim and kill.
Only Kathryn’s affection and determination stand between Gabriel the wolf and Gabriel the man. But when the one who betrayed him returns to court, will Kathryn’s love be enough to keep Gabriel from exacting a brutish revenge that will condemn the wolf to death?
Read an Excerpt
Once upon a time…
Is that how all the stories used to start? After all this time, all this solitude, I’m not sure what I remember anymore. What is real?
Once upon a time I was a man. I remember that much. Not just a man, but a knight.
Remember that. Hold to that.
A knight I was, cherished by the king himself. Respected. Renowned. The most beloved knight in all the land. A hero.
But now I am a beast. What honor I possessed has disappeared along with my fine clothes and gold-etched armor. Along with my titles and honors and lands. Along with her…
All lost, all gone, and now…
The wolf’s upper lip curled back over his fangs, and a low rumble escaped his throat. Were it still a human throat, the growl might have passed for a rueful chuckle. From the throat of a wolf, the sound was little better than a deep snarling.
And now? And now what? He bounded out of the cool shade of his den. His paws sank into the wet, spongy ground beneath him as he ran through the forest, fighting to outpace his thoughts. Normally he hid himself from the light of the day. The sunshine brought back too many memories of what he’d been—and hammered home all too forcefully what he was now.
Today he found no rest wherever he went. All his soul searching only stirred up a restless, painful energy inside him. When you are a beast, what good is there in trying to think like a man?
Echoing growls from his ribcage reminded him of what his human thoughts had distracted him from for too long: wolf, man, or otherwise—he was hungry.
Lady Kathryn understood where her duty lay. She truly did. The hitch, though, the tricky part, the twisty trouble was…well, she was having a difficult time convincing herself that her duty was to do her duty.
The royal court of Lyond had not taken part in a hunt since the marriage of the Princess Aliénor from Jerdun to their King Thomas a month previous. Kathryn had been one of the queen’s ladies only since Aliénor’s marriage, but in one short month Kathryn had grown very fond of her queen. She would do almost anything for her, but…did it have to be hunting?
Riding had never been one of Kathryn’s favorite pastimes. When her father had gambled away the funds necessary to keep their horses, the loss of her late mother’s mare had caused Kathryn only a small touch of regret. She certainly liked horses, and riding could be pleasant, but this—this neck-or-nothing tear through the woods, the bouncing and jostling, that she could not like.
Meanwhile, the great brute of a horse below her kept ignoring all her most urgent instructions. Clearly, the horse recognized who was master, and it certainly was not the featherweight astride his back, pulling at his reins. He had his head now and would not have slowed for a rider twice as skillful as Kathryn. With an angry whinny, the horse broke from the group of hunters and careened wildly off into the forest.
Teeth jarring together, branches whipping her face, Kathryn clenched her legs around the horse’s sides and fought to hold on. Unfortunately, a bare moment later, she tumbled forward off her horse’s neck, the ground rising up to meet her. “Oof.” She lay stunned in the damp leaves, the musty smell of the dirt thick in her nostrils.
Meanwhile, the careless beast who’d tossed her galloped gleefully back to his stable for some oats and a good brushing down.
Kathryn pushed upright with a groan. “Oh dear.” The hunt was on, and her companions would probably not miss her for some time. When the world stopped spinning, she stood with the aid of an obliging tree trunk and took in her surroundings. The lush forest possessed a heavy covering of brush on the ground, clustering around the roots of the tall trees.
“Help!” She put a hand to her chest, trying to calm her still-hammering heart. “Anyone? Hello?”
The forest swallowed her cries. The only sounds around her were the gentle rustlings of wind in the trees. She swallowed her fear, stifling it, and started walking, hoping someone had noticed her difficulties and come looking. She would be having a very long day if they hadn’t.
A strange noise caught her attention, and she tilted her head to listen. Barking, horses, and—the high-pitched howl of a wolf? She froze. I thought we hunted the hart this day. This thought was swiftly chased away by another and rather more alarming one: They’re coming this way.
The crashing of hooves through the underbrush filled her ears, along with the bloodthirsty cries of the hunting dogs and the triumphant shouts of men.
She stood at the edge of a small clearing. A hoyden in her youth, Kathryn was out of practice now and had a little difficulty maneuvering with her hampering skirts. Nevertheless, she swung herself up quickly enough onto the first branch of the nearest tree.
Just in time too. The king and his entourage, having trapped their quarry at last, thundered into the clearing, their giant horses trampling over the place where she had been standing.
The wolf smelled the dogs before he heard the sounds of the hunt echoing in his forest. The hounds scented him before they gave chase, howling and baying while they tracked his progress through the woods. His werewolf’s scent, and the stench of magic about him, always drove poor beasts like hunting dogs mad.
Ah, well. The wolf believed himself rather smarter than even the wiliest hunting dog and had tricks enough to bring himself safely home. He stretched his muscles and broke into a run, shoulders flexing, muscles singing at the exercise.
He caught a hint of smell then—the merest breath to fill his nostrils. But it was enough. A spasm of grief choked him, and a whine broke from his throat. The wolf stopped. He could not have moved if he’d wanted to—and he did not want to.
My king, he thought, just before the hounds caught up to him. He ran then, cursing himself as he darted between the trees and slogged through the tangles of underbrush. Idiot. You let one smell on the air distract you long enough for the dogs to get your scent. Now what are you going to do?
Befuddled and at war with himself, he fumbled through his escape, stumbling, taking wrong turns. His baser instincts pulled with every fiber of muscle for him to slip away and lose himself in the forest, foiling this hunt as he had so many others. Yet his human heart, and what parts of his head it still had sway over, urged him in the other direction—back to the humans. Back to the king.
His hesitation, his dreadful indecision, gave the hunting dogs the edge. The wolf wore himself out running from them and from himself. If he didn’t focus—and soon—the dogs would get him.
The swift hounds chased him for hours, wearing the wolf down, tiring him out so he would be too weak to give more than a token fight at the end. He remembered this tactic well from when he had been the hunter on the horse. He winced remembering all the poor beasts his prized hounds had chased down for him and the terrified, fatigued animals he had put to death as a man and ceremoniously carved up to feed to his hunting dogs.
At least I know what happens next.
The largest of the hounds caught up with the werewolf, pacing along beside him. The hound’s rasping breaths rang loud in the wolf’s ears. Dog and wolf were of similar height, though the wolf’s body had more weight to it, larger muscles.
The hound, a whipcord of wiry strength with jaws of iron, pounced on the wolf. The werewolf dodged, and the deathblow meant for his neck fell instead to his shoulder. Searing heat erupted along the wolf’s side, and he snarled. The hound thrashed and bit down again with bruising strength.
With true remorse as the wolf remembered how fond he had been of his own hounds, he savagely locked onto the dog’s neck. With a bone-shattering crunch, the wolf snapped the dog’s neck and ripped its throat open.
Gurgling, eyes rolling back, the dog fell dead to the soft turf of the forest. Even as the wolf mourned the beast, he reveled in the metallic stench of the dog’s blood and savored the hot broth. Yet he did not linger long over his kill as the other dogs caught up to their dead leader. The thunder of hooves and the jeering calls of men echoing among the trees meant their masters weren’t far behind.
With a whimper, he leapt into motion again, his long strides making his injured shoulder flare with pain. The wolf’s stomach rumbled from hunger. He could still taste the hound’s blood in his mouth, mingling with some of his own. His body ached from fatigue.
His wounded shoulder betrayed him, and he stumbled. Falling, he rolled across the spongy earth, kicking up the rich scent of mud and the sharp tang of broken greenery.
Wet and sticky with blood, the wolf rolled to his feet with a snarl. He blinked bleary eyes to focus on his surroundings. The dogs closed in around him, pressing him back to a tight knot of trees. He faced the pack of snarling hounds as their masters rode into sight just through the trees. He tried to stagger out of the clearing, to shelter, to safety, but a hound snapped at him and, growling low, forced the wolf back.
The hunt thundered into the clearing, and the ground vibrated beneath his paws from the force of so many horses. Riders stalked the wolf on all sides, cornering him. Slowly the dogs crept nearer to tear him limb from limb for the delectation of their keepers.
Let them come. He snapped at the nearest hound, growling loud enough that his whole body seemed to vibrate with the sound. I am not a knight anymore, but I can still fight. This I will do to the end. To the death.
Through his haze of fatigue, he wondered idly why the dogs had not finished him yet. His human memory cheerfully supplied the answer to the wolf’s addled wits: in a hunt like this, the actual kill was saved for the highest-ranking member. In this case: King Thomas.
The king was going to kill him. Then the nobles and other worthies would hack him to bits. Very ceremoniously and reverently, of course, but all the same, there would not be much left of the wolf at the end. Then, last, in reward for a job well done, the dogs might get to eat some of his mangled carcass. As far as an ugly death went, it was hard to top that.
But oh, his body ached and his heart hurt, and if he got to see his king again…Fool that I am, that might almost be worth it.
The hunters’ prey was a wolf. The largest wolf Kathryn had ever seen or heard tell of. As large as a man. Ugly wounds spotted the beast’s black coat, and a deep bite mark on its shoulder glistened with blood. The wolf growled at the group, almost as if he realized what was coming.
She had never seen a wolf so close before, and she studied it in fascination from her vantage point. It had a rather luxurious black pelt and a long snout.
She jumped as the wolf raised its head and hurled a defiant snarl at its tormentors. Those eyes. No wolf’s eyes ever looked like that. She had seen wolves from a distance at night near her home and, true, all wolves had uncanny eyes. She had always half believed they could see to your soul and back again. Their eyes held knowing, but not like this. This wolf’s eyes, they were human. The dark blue, round-pupiled eyes of a human.
She gasped, and the rider below her tree glanced up. Stomach churning, Kathryn found herself staring down into the amused face of King Thomas.
The king laughed. “What have we here? A tree dryad? A nymph, mayhap?” His mouth turned up in mild amusement. “Lady Kathryn, is it not?”
She had never before spoken to King Thomas in her time at court. For a long, shocked moment, she studied her ruler in mute fascination. Broad shouldered and vigorous despite being in his mid-forties, the king had a quiet dignity, an inborn strength. His face was lined but had a rugged appeal, the fascination of a face well lived in. His features had a certain leonine cast to them, with a graceful appeal and refinement of line. The king’s gray-blue eyes were kind, though dimmed from within by some terrible sadness.
She realized she’d been staring and hastily executed the most graceful bow she could manage while clinging to her tree. “The wolf, my lord—”
“A magnificent beast. Too large and certainly too wily to be anything but magical. His pelt will be a fine prize.”
“No.” The syllable tore itself from her throat before she could think the better of speaking.
The king’s eyes blazed with anger. She lowered her gaze, and embarrassed heat bloomed across her face as the rest of the hunting party craned to look at her.
“No.” A voice broke through the weariness pounding at him. The wolf glanced into the canopy of trees and saw a face, sweet and sympathetic, hanging above him. A face with rosy cheeks and kind, light-green eyes. The first human face he had really looked at, really seen, in two years. Well, if I am to die today in this accursed form, at least I have seen the face of human compassion one last time.
The green eyes lowered, and his own gaze followed them. His breath caught as he saw the king—a face as well known to him as his own human face had once been. A sight more beloved than any other. He looked into the face of the king, his lord, his family, and the wolf’s heart clenched with pain.
Not quite knowing what he did, the werewolf gathered what remained of his strength. With a grunt of pain at the tearing hurt from his shoulder, the wolf leapt over the ring of dogs separating him from his liege.
He landed by the hooves of King Thomas’s horse and, before the animal could shy away, the wolf had caught the stirrup of the saddle with his paws. As best he could manage with his lupine snout, the wolf humbled himself before his lord and licked the great man’s boot.
King Thomas stared at this marvel for a full minute and might have stared still longer but for Kathryn’s intervention as she screamed, “My lord, the dogs!”
The king finally noticed that not only the dogs but also their keepers had advanced on the wolf with deadly intent. “My lords.” The king raised one leather-gloved hand. All action in the clearing halted at this slight gesture. The dogs’ keepers brought them to heel, and the men waited, holding their collective breath. The rasping of the injured wolf became the loudest noise about. Even the accustomed rustlings and murmurs of the wild things in the woods seemed to have stilled themselves to hear the king’s announcement.
“Behold this marvel.” King Thomas signaled to the wolf on the ground. “A humble beast begs for his king’s mercy. Truly—” He paused and looked more closely at the wolf. “I think this beast has the mind of a man. Take my dogs away.”
Because he was their liege, the meadow soon emptied of all save the king, his most trusted retainers, the queen, Kathryn—still in the tree—and the wolf.
“Do you require assistance to descend, my lady?” the king asked Kathryn, his mouth twitching in a grin.
Kathryn composed her face and shook her head. She leapt down from her sanctuary, landing a few feet away from the wolf. Pity stabbed at her heart as she stared at the disheveled creature, the labored heaving of its sides, the bloody patches on its hide. “What will you do with the beast, my lord?”
King Thomas alighted from his horse, offering her his arm. As she stepped forward, he covered her hand where it rested on his elbow. A quick wink came and went so fast she could not be sure she’d seen the movement at all.
The king turned from her and addressed his courtiers. “As I am king, hear me and obey. I do here and now extend the hand of mercy to this creature. He is rational. He has a mind. No one is to harm him. Ever.” King Thomas sighed with great weariness. “I shall hunt no more today. Let us return.”
One of the knights surrendered his own mount to Kathryn and led the great stallion by the reins as she rode. The knight, Sir Edric, grinned over his shoulder at her as he led the horse, but Kathryn gave him only a wan smile in return. She closed her eyes, the swaying gait of the animal soothing as she drooped with fatigue in the saddle.
She blinked her eyes open and looked to her escort.
“The king requests that you attend him,” Sir Edric said.
Kathryn stifled a sigh and nodded, taking the reins from the knight’s outstretched hand. She trotted the horse to the front of the column to ride beside the king as requested. On the king’s other side, Queen Aliénor frowned at the king. “But, husband, isn’t it possible this could be a trap? Some magical mischief sent from Jerdun.”
Kathryn froze, feeling her eyes go wide.
The king glanced over and noticed her at last. He smiled. “Lady Kathryn, what think you of this?” He motioned to the ground on his right side.
Kathryn craned to see past his horse and gasped to see the wolf limping quite determinedly in step with the king’s horse. Kathryn had believed the wolf all but dead back in the clearing. Truly she thought they had left him there. A misapprehension, apparently.
Queen Aliénor shook her head. “I don’t think this is a good idea. The beast could be dangerous.”
King Thomas made a small gesture of negation with his hand. “I disagree. I trust the wolf. He feels…familiar somehow. Noble.”
His wife made a small, dissatisfied hmph noise and looked behind. “Well, I do not trust the beast.”
King Thomas caught her hand and dropped a quick kiss. “Trust me then.” He scratched the line of his bearded jaw and addressed Kathryn again, “While you were being helped to a mount, a few of my men tried to deter the wolf from this course of action. They were, shall we say, disabused of the notion that he would be parted from me.”
Kathryn grimaced. She hated to think they had been wrong about a noble, knowledgeable beast, after all. Maybe Queen Aliénor was right to be afraid.
“Oh, nothing serious,” the king explained, perhaps noticing Kathryn’s discomfort. “Just some light scratches and bruising.”
Kathryn snorted to find the king so nonplussed at the threat of his best men being mauled by a mystical animal.
“What shall I do with the creature, Lady Kathryn? Any suggestions?”
The queen opened her mouth but pinched it closed, swallowing whatever she’d been about to say. She creased her brows, watching Kathryn.
Kathryn shifted uneasily, feeling torn between the two royals. Her loyalty was to the queen, and clearly Queen Aliénor disliked the beast. But, after saving the wolf in the clearing, it seemed wrong to leave him behind to bleed to death in the forest. Kathryn couldn’t bring herself to say anything to either monarch and simply stared hard at the back of her horse’s neck. Coward. The slightest misstep could see her banished from court, though. Her father would be furious with her if she were cast out. She dare not risk that.
She darted a sideways glance at the king. A corner of his mouth tipped up as if he sensed some of her inner turmoil. “Perhaps inspiration will strike when we reach my castle.”