Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sneak Peek at new novel

This is the first chapter of a potential new novel I've gotten a bit stalled on. What do you guys think - is it worth continuing? 


Chapter 1: Inauspicious Stars
            The one problem with being the mysterious answer to everyone’s prayers is that you had to dress the part.
            Jess nodded at the assembled townspeople, annoyed at every chilled breeze that snuck in and around the weak protection of her cloak. A coat would have been far more effective, but those were much harder to sweep aside dramatically at key moments.
            Like right now.
            Flinging the fabric back in a bold, theatrical gesture she’d spent a week practicing, she opened the instrument case strapped to her chest and pulled out a slender, wooden pipe polished to a high, attention-grabbing sheen. Then she straightened her spine, lifted her chin, and swept her gaze over the small group of civic leaders who had been kept from their beds to make sure she did the job properly. “Ready?”
            Her audience sized her up, much as they had done in the council meeting earlier where she'd made her initial offer. She was undoubtedly younger than they'd like – though she was certain they were estimating at least a few years older than her real age of 17 – but her cap of dark hair was well-ordered and her features just exotic enough to give her an air of mystery.
            To top it off, she was wearing a purple velvet top and leggings edged in silver piping. It was a ridiculous outfit – she kept it solely for jobs like this – but it looked far more expensive than anything they were wearing.
            People paid far more attention to that than they did her face. 
            One of the council members, a portly woman with her collar buttoned all the way to her chin, raised a hand. “We’ll be able to see if this is actually working, right?”
            Jess resisted the urge to sigh. This was why she did it this way in the first place, rather than the much more sensible route of simply standing on the opposite side of the trench currently waiting on the other end of town. The people needed the show. “Oh, you’ll definitely be able to see it.” She began walking, hoping to forestall any more stupid questions. “Follow me, ladies and gentlemen. Remember, I will not be able to stop or speak until all the rats are dead.”
            Then she put the pipe to her lips and blew the first clean, clear note.
            Despite the impression she liked to give people, this wasn’t the moment when the magic started to happen. She still played pubs and street corners during the lean months and calling rats in the middle of every song would put a damper on tips.
            Jess transitioned the note into a simple pub tune that she could play in her sleep by this point, then let her gaze go glassy as she shifted her focus to deep inside herself. She’d gotten good at pretending this was easy, but it took far more concentration than even the most complicated, demanding song she’d ever played.
            Almost … almost….
            She could practically feel the click as her power kicked in, felt the notes spilling out of her little pipe vibrate with a frequency that refused to sit still so it could be properly heard. As far as she could tell, no one without this particular talent could tell there’d been any change at all, though she’d had a musician or two give her narrow-eyed looks as if they knew something was escaping them.
            Behind her, a few of the less patient souls were getting restless. “What if this is all just a trick?” one man muttered, apparently assuming that she’d gone deaf the moment she’d put the pipe to her lips. "She told us we could see it work, but so far the only thing that's happened...."
            The man's voice trailed off as he finally noticed the faint scrabbling sound behind them.
            Then came the gasps, the sound blending in with the notes she was playing. She'd segued into a more complicated song by this point, the grand entrance music used by a theater troupe she'd worked with as a child, and she turned around and risked walking backwards for a few steps so she could properly appreciate the effect.
            Rats. Only 20 or so at this point – the night was young – with more hurrying to join the parade with every step they took. They'd climbed out of kitchens and larders and holes in the wall, lips silent and eyes glassy with the need to follow Jess wherever she went. By the time they'd made it through the city, there might be a hundred or more.
            "Magic," the mayor breathed, awe and just a little bit of fear in his voice. For the rest of the walk, there wasn't another peep from the town leaders.
            It didn't feel like a very long walk before they'd made it to the other end of town, an empty field with a trench on the other side. As soon as they got into view, a farmer ignited the trench and set the dry brush inside it ablaze.
            Here, the mayor and his council were no longer so interested in following her, hanging back while she and her rats headed for the trench. There was a thin bridge across it, always made of something suitably non-flammable, and after she crossed it she'd kick it into the trench and keep playing. The rats always followed.
            Jess was halfway across when she heard the crack, somehow a thousand times louder than the notes she was playing. Her stomach dropped as she felt the bridge give way, the fire blazing under her feet, but all she had to do was take a few more steps and she'd be—
            A huge, shadowy figure loomed in front of her, cutting off her exit. The music faltered for the first time as she stared at it, a patch of darkness with a few faint hints that might have been a bony face. She took a step away from it without realizing she'd done it, back toward the fire and the crumbling bridge some idiot had made out of wood, she hadn't checked because she'd just assumed no one was that stupid, and her last thought was horror that her subconscious had picked such a clichéd image to come to terms with the fact that she was about to d—
            Someone grabbed her, and she fell forward onto the dirt on the opposite side of the trench.
            But no, it wasn't dirt, because as they hit the empty space she'd been about to land on transformed into a teenage boy, the thick glasses he was wearing making his eyes look huge. They stared at each other for a few breathless seconds, both of them clearly clueless about what to do next, then there was the sound of running feet in the distance and what definitely sounded like a curse word coming from the empty space above her head.
            There was a swishing sound, then they were gone.
            They reappeared in a grove of trees, and Jess and the boy immediately scrambled away from each other. A third person appeared a moment later, a middle-aged man with a nametag pinned to his shirt and the pained expression of someone who can’t understand the incompetence going on around him. He turned a fierce glare on the teenager. “What did you think you were doing?”
            The boy hurriedly got to his feet, pushing his sandy-colored hair out of his eyes as he shoved his glasses back up his nose. Jess noticed that he, too, was wearing a nametag, though she couldn't quite make out the words on it from here. “She was right there." Frustration flashed in his eyes. “She probably would have just walked off the bridge if you hadn’t been standing where you were.”
Jess winced internally as she saw the older man’s face go red. Even though the kid had been absolutely right, no one in charge liked to be told something was their fault. Unless you were offering a way to make the problem go away, it was always best to lay the blame on a third party somewhere conveniently far away.          "If she hadn't been about to die, she wouldn't have shown up on my monitor!" the older man snapped. "Your only duty, Mr.—" a quick glance at the younger man's nametag "—Abernathy, is to focus on your job. You are there for one reason and one reason only, to reap the souls of the dead so they can properly move onto the afterlife."
            Jess listened, hand still tight on her pipe as she filed the information away for future reference. Apparently, her foster mother had been right – there really were employment opportunities everywhere you looked. Though she wasn't really thrilled with the fact that these guys were apparently sneaking around invisible unless you were about to die....
            "But she didn't have to—"
            "That doesn't matter. Besides, I'm quite certain you weren't there for the girl at all. There is no way the main office would authorize someone as young as you to be a human reaper."
            For the first time, something that might have been guilt flashed across young Mr. Abernathy's face. "The rats."
            "The rats! Who, as you well know, are now scuttling around that field as tiny, confused rodent ghosts because someone didn't...."
            The man kept talking, but Jess was no longer paying attention. She had disappeared in the middle of a job – one she was definitely going to make sure she got paid extra for, given the bit where they'd nearly killed her – and she needed to get back there before they decided she was pulling a con. She'd already have to sweet-talk them into not caring that she'd have to go through a second round to re-gather the rest of the rats, and the longer she took to come back the more work it was going to be. People panicked more easily than the rats did, sometimes.
            Jess hurriedly scrambled to her own feet, breathing a sigh of relief when she caught sight of flames through the trees. That was probably the trench, which meant the older man had simply transported them to the patch of forest near the field so he could have privacy to chew out his subordinate. It would be easy to slip away before the other two even noticed....
            She'd slipped into the nearest patch of shadow when her traitorous ears chose to tune back into the older man's litany of complaints. " assured, Mr. Abernathy, I'll have to file a report with your supervisor. It won't be pretty..."
            Jess stopped moving. He saved your life, you know, her mind whispered.
            She tried to force her feet to move forward, cursing the strange tugging sensation inside her chest that kept trying to make her turn around. I seriously don't have time for this.
            You'd have even less time for it if you were dead. Which you're not, thanks to the poor kid who's about to get in trouble for making sure you're still breathing.
            "...I know you think you were a hero, but behavior like that undermines the sacred responsibility of every reaper..."
            Reluctantly, Jess turned around. The teen's shoulders were still square, clearly not caved by anything the older man said, but there was a resigned look in his eyes that meant he'd given up fighting. Like he wasn't surprised that this was his only reward for being a hero.
            If you were over there, you could sweet talk his way out of this in five minutes or less. You wouldn't even break a sweat.
            He might not even want me to. Before she'd even finished the thought, Jess knew it wasn't true. Jess knew the look of someone who was completely alone in the world all too well.
            "...You'll be lucky if you keep your job, which you won’t if I have any say in the matter...."
            Both the older man and the young Mr. Abernathy whipped around at the sudden sound of Jess's voice. Before either of them had the chance to speak, she strode back into the clearing as if given a mission vital to the security of a kingdom. "This young man is being a gentleman, but I'm afraid I can't let this misunderstanding continue on any longer." She used the same tone she did for her sales pitches, the one that rang with certainty no matter what nonsense was coming out of her mouth. "He's not the one at fault here."
            Their brows furrowed at the same moment, the usual first reaction of the average mind when told something that so obviously contradicted established reality. The key was to keep talking.
            Jess put on her best "I'm so sorry for the trouble, officer" expression. "A person's instinct for self-preservation is remarkable when they're near death, as I'm sure you both know better than anyone." She nodded as she spoke, a gesture the older man couldn't help but echo. An agreement, even if he didn't consciously realize it. "I don't know where I found the energy, but in that desperate moment as the bridge was collapsing under me I found myself leaping towards the sure safety of the other side. This young man here just happened to be in the way of that leap, which is why I fell on him. I saved my own life, using him as an accidental assistant. He certainly didn't intend to betray the sacred duty of the reapers, sir."
            There was a moment of perfect silence as she let that particular string of nonsense sink in for a few seconds. The teen looked stunned, staring at Jess as if he couldn't quite believe what she was doing. Either he was appalled at the ridiculousness of the lie, or he was completely unprepared to have someone step in and help him for once.
            Either way, she knew exactly how he felt.
            The older man was having more trouble processing. "But I saw—"
            Interrupting him was a calculated risk. "It was a confusing moment, sir. Everything was a blur, fire and limbs everywhere.” She slid into the calm, sure tone of a teacher explaining something to a student who didn’t yet understand. “But when you're the one near death, your mind is clear as a bell."
            He narrowed his eyes at her, a hint of doubt flickering in his eyes. "Do you know Mr. Abernathy, by any chance?"
            "No, sir," she said immediately, completely honest for the first time since she'd opened her mouth. "I've never seen him before in my life."
            The older man swung his gaze to the teenager, wearing the furrowed brow of a man whose certainties were slipping away from him. "If that's what really happened, why didn't you say something?"
            The teen blinked, clearly not having expected to be included in the conversation, but rallied better than Jess expected. "I was confused," he said quickly. "Like she said, everything was a blur."
            The older man sighed, then scrubbed a hand across his face. "Fine. But I'd better never hear your name connected to anything like this again, you understand me?"
            The teen nodded. "Understood."
            The older man gestured back toward the trench. "And I'd better see every single one of those rats properly reaped, you understand me?"
            Telling herself that he could take it from here, Jess hurried through the trees toward the trench and the waiting civic leaders. "I'm back!" she called out as soon as she cleared the tree line, not waiting until they could see her before grabbing their attention. "I've re-channeled my energies after that unfortunate little brush with death, and I'm ready to wrap things up for a very reasonable additional fee of thirty credit slips to compensate me for the fact that you accidentally tried to kill me."
            The assembled group, who had been busy whispering loudly at one another, immediately snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. “We didn’t try to kill you!” one of them called out, sounding genuinely offended by the thought.
            “You put a wood bridge up over a trench full of fire, when I specifically said something non-flammable.” She flashed a bright, humorless smile when she got close enough that they could see her expression. Every one of them winced or looked away. “Though remember, I did say accident. Mistakes happen to the best of us.”
            The buttoned-up woman took a step forward. “How did you survive it?” she asked, notes of something that might have been fear dancing under the surface of her voice.
            Now, this was the tricky bit. The mostly independent villages and towns that were a piper’s bread and butter tended to spook easily. When they were truly afraid of you, being run out of town with pitchforks and torches was the best-case scenario. At the same time, it didn’t do to let the serious, responsible citizenry think they could push you around or deny you your hard-earned payment for services rendered. 
            Jess waved a hand, as if discussing something of no consequence. “Magic.”
            They all stared at her for a few beats of silence as both the word and the gesture soaked in, their minds undoubtedly already spinning details to fill in the gaps. Rumors were wonderfully useful in her line of work.
            Finally, the mayor sighed. “Fine. I’ll pay your ‘accident’ fee out of pocket as soon as you finish dealing with the rest of the rats.”
            Jess relaxed the small muscles in her face that let the smile seem much more warm and natural. “Excellent. Let’s get started.”
            She stayed on the other side of the trench this time, pouring a little more effort into the playing and letting the rats come to her. When no more appeared Jess played a few more minutes, just to be sure, then followed the mayor to his house and collected her additional fee. When he grumbled, she smiled at him again.
            Once that was done, the next step was to find a stable to bunk down in for the rest of the night. She’d already picked one out on her way into town, small but clean and occupied by a couple of older horses that looked too tired to get uppity about a human sharing their space. She should be there right now, in fact.
            Instead, she was back in the empty field, standing close to the still-smoldering trench and looking for a shadowy figure she already knew she wouldn’t see. She'd already guessed that she'd only seen the teenage boy and his supervisor like that at first because she'd been about to die, exactly the kind of neat little trick that would keep the majority of people from figuring out that the Grim Reaper was probably a guy just trying to make his child support payments.
            For that matter, the younger reaper might not even be here. Jess had no idea how long reaping took, which meant he could have very well finished the job before she'd even left the mayor's house. He was probably home in bed right now, hoping that his next assignment kept him far away from troublemaking pipers.
            I don't have time for this, either, she told herself. He's not even here.
            Hey, I'm not the one who dragged you back out into this field. This was all your idea.
            Jess sighed, remembering the surprise on the teen's face when she'd stepped in to help him. "Thank you for saving my life," she called out to what was undoubtedly empty air. "I'm not used to having someone looking out for me like that."
            The only response was silence. Embarrassed, Jess shrugged her pack higher onto her shoulder and began walking back to the stable. She had to have burned through her allotment of guilt for the year, and if she didn't sleep like a baby she was going to have stern words with—
            "Me, either."
            Jess whirled around at the sound of the younger reaper's voice. He was standing only a few feet away from where she'd been, caution in his eyes and hands half lifted as if he didn't know what to do with them.
            When she didn't say anything, he cleared his throat and clarified. "I mean the way you talked Mr. Garrett around. I'm not that good at lying – there's no way I could have sold a story like that."
            For a second, all she could do was stare at him, caught off guard nearly as badly as she'd been with the bridge.
             Seeing her expression, he looked embarrassed. "Listen, I didn't mean ... It was a good lie, really."
            That surprised a laugh out of Jess. "It was a ludicrous lie. The only reason it worked at all is because I'm an excellent liar."
            His expression relaxed, a smile slowly easing its way into existence. "I noticed."
            Shaking herself back into her usual composure, she held out a hand. "I'm Jess. Please tell me there's something I can call you other than Mr. Abernathy."
            His smile widened. "Thomas." He shook her hand. "Thank you for saving my job."
            "Least I could do." She shifted, not sure what was going to happen next. It was an unusual feeling for her. "I'm glad you were still here. Most people would be home in bed by now."
            "I don't really have a bed." He shrugged. "I usually just find a stable somewhere when I'm on shift."

            Jess smiled back at him without even entirely realizing she was doing it. "I know the perfect place."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Deleted Scenes: Beast Charming, part 1

This is the prologue for a slightly earlier version of "Beast Charming" that didn't make it into the final cut. While this means that some of the plot details listed here means that it no longer fits neatly onto the version of the novel you guys will be getting – at least one character has disappeared entirely, just as an example – it's a nice little introduction to the situation and some of the key supporting characters who did stick around.


Prologue: Door-to-Door Curse Correction

 “…and I’ve been told he’s a wonderful listener. It’s true that he doesn’t exactly have ears, but he’s an enchanted washboard – I’m sure they’ve made some other arrangements. A couple months of quiet company and poof, you’ve got yourself a prince – the happily ever after’s practically guaranteed ….”

 “Father.” Grace was surprised at how calm her voice sounded. “Let’s pretend I’m Beauty for a second.”

Startled, Noble froze in place, forcing the crowd flowing down the street to part around his bulk. “You’re my good daughter. Why in the world would I want to imagine you changing into your horrible little sister?”

Grace leaned forward as she jabbed a finger into his chest. “Because then I would be the type of person who would tell you that if you don’t stop talking this instant, I’m going to knock you unconscious with this zucchini and leave you here to be stepped on.”

Noble blinked, then glanced furtively up and down the street in case anyone suddenly seemed a little too excited to help Grace follow through with the “stepping on” part of Grace’s plan. When no one came forward, he glared at his daughter. “Wouldn’t you say that was just a little more dramatic than the situation called for?”

Grace narrowed her eyes. “You want me to start dating an enchanted washboard. I don’t think you’re in any condition to be swayed by subtle suggestion.”

The empty space around them widened by a few inches, the need for the surrounding people to shave a few seconds off their travel time momentarily subsumed by the much more pressing need not to get caught in the middle of an Embarrassing Family Moment.

“I offer you the future and you sound as if I’m making you scrub the kitchen. Why have I been cursed with daughters who have such narrow minds?” Noble’s sigh was long and loud in the hopes that random passersby might take pity on him. “You all must have gotten that particular deficit from your mother, God rest her ….”

“Don’t even start with that.” Grace started shaking her head before he could even finish the sentence. “You know as well as I do that she’s not dead. She ran off with that merchant from Elvinton when Beauty was five and none of us have seen her since.”

“Which means that she could very well be dead by now,” he huffed, brown eyes not quite capable of meeting his daughter’s grey ones. “But that’s completely beside the point. The enchanted washboard’s the best potential fairy tale I’ve been able to find yet. There’s hardly any effort required on your part, and the prince won’t even get the chance to be … to meet you until you’ve already won his heart by saving him.” He leaned in close, wrapping a conspiratorial arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “It’s practically a sure thing – two weeks, at most, until you get your very own happily ever after and I get a wealthy and grateful son-in-law.”

Grace shoved Noble’s arm off her shoulder, whirling back around to face her father. “That, in case you’ve forgotten, is exactly what you said when you kept dumping frogs into our beds every night on the off chance that one of them might turn into a duke. And when you knocked Patience unconscious and spread the word that she was a long-lost princess caught in an enchanted sleep. Not to mention that time with the geese ….”

Noble folded his arms across his stocky chest, lower lip jutting out slightly in what he would never admit was an angry pout. “Your great-aunt Caroline locked herself in a tower for a measly six or so years and she managed to snag herself a baron.”

Grace groaned and rolled her eyes, then recited the same response she’d been making to that line since she was 15 years old. “It was actually the third son of a baron, Father, and the family was so poor that Great Uncle Nigel had to hire himself out as a castle maintenance man. He met Caroline when he was fixing a leak in the tower roof and just never got around to leaving.”

 “A minor detail.” Noble waved his hand casually, brushing away that inconvenient little thing called reality. “No matter what he was doing up there, your great-aunt certainly never would have met her future husband and stopped being such a burden to her parents if she hadn’t been up in the tower in the first place. Besides,” He sucked in his stomach, the mass of it lifting his chest a good three or so inches. “Her father didn’t have my vision.”

Grace raised an eyebrow. “Have we forgotten about the frogs already?”

Now Noble’s chin lifted. “Failure,” he said with utmost conviction. “Is just another step on the pathway to success.” Then he drooped slightly, adding with a mutter, “Though with you girls, it’s gotten to be an incredibly long pathway.”

Grace sighed, feeling it all the way down to the base of her spine. “You could just leave us alone, you know.”  She lifted a hand to rub the back of her neck. “It’s about the only crazy thought you haven’t tried yet.”

Noble made a disgusted noise. “But I have tried it, and look where it’s gotten us. The men from the village make the sign of the cross when they see Patience coming. Your little sister Beauty isn’t quite such a terror, but she’s still stubborn, smart-mouthed and thornier than your mother’s old rosebushes. You’re the only one who has any sort of chance of attracting a man on her own, but you’ve been so busy taking care of Beauty that it hasn’t occurred to you to start looking.” He shook his head. “Finding you girls fairy tales is about the last chance I have to stay sane.”

Completely unable to think of an argument her father would actually understand, Grace gave up and simply glared at him again. “You still haven’t told me how you decided I was destined to be the washboard’s dream girl.”

Noble raised an eyebrow, mocking Grace’s earlier gesture. “Have you actually listened to your sisters recently?”

Grace folded her arms, deliberately keeping her expression even. “Weren’t you the one that said the main advantage of this particular fairy tale is that the poor washboard wouldn’t get the chance to see or hear his future beloved until it was too late for him to do anything about it?”

Noble opened his mouth, then snapped it closed when he realized that she might have a point. His chin lifted again. “Maybe I was trying to reward you for making my life just a little less miserable than your sisters insist on doing.”

Grace remained unmoved. “You only think that because I’m willing to do the family mending.”
 “True.” A wistful look came into Noble’s eyes. “If we could only get you to start doing some embroidery, needlepoint even, I could pass you off in just about any castle there is ….”

Before Grace could respond someone with an overly large basket knocked against her, causing her to stumble backwards and nearly fall. Catching her father’s arm for balance whether he liked it or not, she straightened with an annoyed sigh. “And then there’s always the chance I could trip and smash the prince into a thousand pieces,” she added sarcastically, brushing away a lock of sand-brown hair that had fallen out of her bun before turning to face the rest of her father’s argument.

But he just stood there frozen, eyes wide like Grace had accidentally elbowed him in the stomach. Then he sighed, his entire body seeming to sag with the sound. “It would be just like that time with the twelve princes, wouldn’t it? Only eleven other couples in a gigantic enchanted ballroom, and you somehow manage to knock a grandfather clock on top of your prince charming.”

 “Once, Father. I did that once. Besides, that prince of yours is the one who practically threw me into that clock in the first place. If he hadn’t danced like he was swinging a sack of grain around ….” A little voice in Grace’s brain kept desperately trying to close her mouth, reminding her that she should be relieved that long-term commitment to a chunk of wood wasn’t in her immediate future. But she had been joking, curse him. “Breaking his legs was probably a community service.”

But Noble had already moved on, staring meditatively off into the distance. “It’s too bad about the washboard. Still, maybe I can trade the information to a wicked uncle or something, see if I can get one to adopt one of you girls for a couple of weeks. The poison, unfortunately, isn’t going to be ready until the end of the month, so at least for right now that’s a wash. If only that butler of his wasn’t so … well, well, well. There he is.” His gaze sharpened as something caught his eye, an almost predatory edge sliding into his expression. “I’ve got him now.”

Noble set off into the crowd, stopping only when he realized that there was now a Grace-shaped weight firmly attached to his shirtsleeve. “Who’s ‘he,’ and what terrible thing are you about to drag him into?” She took a quick, desperate look in the direction he had been staring, hoping the view would give her some sign of whatever was going on in his head. “More importantly, when are you going to spring this terrible thing on us?”

 “Not ‘us,’ my dear girl.” Noble was smiling contentedly as he carefully pried her fingers off his arm, and for the first time that morning Grace felt her stomach twist with genuine nerves. “I try to save the more … extreme situations for one of your sisters”

Grace’s eyes narrowed. “There’s no way Beauty’s going to believe a word that comes out of your mouth. After that whole ‘straw into gold’ mess you tried to pull ….”

Noble shook his head, far too pleased with himself for anyone’s good. “As if I would limit my possibilities that way.”

 “You can’t mean … Patience?” Grace’s breath caught. The oldest of the three girls, Patience was rude, snappish and had a temper that could frighten off a bear, which meant that their father attempted to pass her off less often than he did the other two (large teeth and a willingness to use them made for a very convincing argument). If this was a chance to get her out of the house.... “You think you might actually be able to use her this time?”

He nodded, more than happy to lie. “You’ll never know unless you give me peace to work.”

She scowled at him. “That’s evil.”

His smile became a grin of satisfaction. “I do my best.”


“What would you do if I told you that I could solve all your problems?”

Momentarily distracted from a rather amusingly shaped rutabaga, Waverly raised an eyebrow at the tall, slick-looking individual in front of him and tried to decide if he was worth the effort for sarcasm. “Then I would say that you no doubt have too much time on your hands, for you very clearly have some problems of your own that need to be attended to first.”

At the expression on the other man’s face Noble shifted a bit, suddenly ever so faintly unsure of himself. He knew he was being insulted, but wasn’t sure how or whether it was worth possibly sacrificing the plan to call him on it. Still, no point in wasting the opportunity …. “Unfortunately for me, none of my problems involve your employer’s ... condition, which happens to be the subject that I am currently most prepared to deal with.”

Waverly sighed, looking fondly over at the displays of produce it was clear he wasn’t going to be allowed to return to for quite some time. He could do them both a favor and verbally destroy the man before he truly embarrassed himself, but to do so in public would be unforgivably rude. “And what condition would that be?”

Still caught somewhat off guard, Noble studied the other man’s eyes in the hopes he could see the joke.  When that failed, he cleared his throat and began a more concerted effort to be charming. “Amusing, sir, but I believe you know the condition I speak of as well as anyone does. Wouldn’t it be simplest, then, to leave such delicate matters for a more private setting and get right down to business?” He held out a hand for a handshake, but pulled it back quickly when Waverly merely eyed it as though he found the gesture amusing.  The idea rankled – what did the man expect, a bow?

For once, Waverly privately agreed with the man. It would be best to get this over with as soon as possible and return his attention to tasks that were actually important, or at the very least more mentally engaging. “Of course, but it might be wise to clarify a few things first,” Waverly allowed a disdainful edge to come out in his voice. “If by business, you mean that you just happen to have a convenient/daughter/sister/ex-wife laying around your domicile that you just know will be the one that can break the horrifying curse of the Beast of Darkwood Hill, then let me tell you that you are to date the 49th person to have come up with such an idea. I beg you to come up with a reason, any reason, why I should pay any more attention to you than I did them.” He thought for a moment. “And, if at all possible, do please try and make it amusing. I’ve just undergone a rather dull week, and could use the entertainment.”

Noble groaned inwardly. Honesty was all he had left, and it galled his salesman’s heart. “If you take away the sister and ex-wife, then you pretty much have it,” he muttered finally. “However, since I don’t know your taste in humor it’s going to be a little hard to fulfill the last part of your request.”

“Then I suggest you simplify your response by telling me why you think your version of the plan, whatever it happens to be, might actually work.”

Noble shivered inwardly, then reluctantly dipped another toe into truth. “Basically, my main selling point is the fact that Beauty is an incredibly stubborn girl. If she sets her mind to doing something, no amount of big hairy anger management issues is going to scare her off.  In fact,” he admitted after a moment, “it’s possible that she’ll be the one to scare him off.”

Waverly’s eyebrow moved up again, his curiosity finally piqued. For once, this was an angle he’d never heard before. “And does she want this?”

Noble allowed himself a small grimace. Forced into all this honesty in the space of a single conversation – he was going to need to lie down after this. “That, unfortunately, will be the hard part.”

Waverly eyed the man in front of him, sorely tempted for the first time in what he was certain had been years. It wasn’t that he specifically needed the curse broken, though such a result would certainly make life easier for the castle décor and the poor souls doing Beast’s tailoring. It was simply that what Beast needed right now was someone to take him out of himself. If Waverly was lucky, they might even slap some sense into the boy before putting him back.

If nothing else, it was possible he had just found the one girl capable of shouting Beast down if the need arose. The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the thought. “Out of curiosity, what do you plan to do with this Beauty of yours if I say no?”

This time, the grimace was almost completely suppressed. “I suppose I could try and get her in with this enchanted washboard I’ve heard about ….”

Waverly shook his head with a sigh. The lack of vision in some people was appalling. “I hope you’ve put slightly more thought into your primary plan than you have into your backup. I dislike being a party to incompetence.”

Noble’s forehead wrinkled as he tried to analyze exactly what the butler might have meant with that last sentence. “Are you saying you’re interested?” At the mere forming of the thought he leaned forward slightly, the eagerness already beginning to leap back into his face. “Because I could con Grace into running some sort of errand up near the castle, I’m certain of it. If your master caught her trespassing on the property and held her hostage – in a dungeon would be the best – I’m sure Beauty would trade herself for her sister’s freedom ….”

“That would be one way of going about things.” Waverly took a precautionary step back, in case the man became overcome and insisted on doing something ridiculous like touching him. “A much saner, approach, however, would simply be for me to write this Beauty of yours a letter and offer her a suitable job at a quiet, respectable castle with residents who have conveniently never met you before in their lives. By the time she arrives at her true destination it will be too late for her to back out, and… we shall see what develops.”

Noble fought back an expression that was dangerously close to a scowl. “That’s all?”  Noble had planned on looking like he had nothing to do with this, and would have gotten to that point had he been allowed to actually lay out his brilliantly foolproof plan. This butler person didn’t know his daughter at all – Beauty was way too good at screwing this sort of thing up. There was no way something so idiotically simple could succeed where he had so often been thwarted.
Still, it would be best to agree now, then take matters into his own hands once she was safely inside ….

“For the moment, that will be all that’s needed.” Waverly raised an eyebrow, amused by some distant thought. “Though I suspect that it would be a good idea to hide the fine china.”