Teen pageant contestant Annabelle Moss sees her life shattered when her parents die in a car accident. A small ray of hope dawns when Gwendolyn Wentworth, the richest lady in town and former pageant queen, offers to take her in and be her coach.
Former child pageant contestant Taryn Wentworth hides behind oversized clothes and hair covering her face. At odds with her mother, she gives Annabelle the cold shoulder.
But as the world darkens and the real beast reveals itself, Annabelle and Taryn must rely on each other's love to survive.
A contemporary lesbian YA inspired by a classic fairy tale, Beautiful Beast explores what it really means to be beautiful…and beloved.
Dayle's Beautiful Beast contains no magic at all except the magic of love. Which makes the book magical indeed. So why did I include it here? Because of the whole Beauty and the Beast motif, that's why. You'll see. Read the opening, and see if you don't get hooked right there. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The stage lights are blindingly hot, but my smile doesn't waver. My makeup doesn't melt. Around me, the other girls smell like too much perfume, too much nervousness; baby powder sweet and perspiration sour. All sounds seems heightened, from the blood pounding in my ears, to the tiny cough Charlene Carpenter almost suppresses, to the whine of the lead judge's microphone as he leans forward to speak.
To the sound of his voice, loud and clear, as he asks me the question that for so long, I feared the most.
"What is the biggest challenge you've had to overcome in your life?"
The stage lights mean I can't see past the judges. But I know who's out there. I can feel their eyes on me. I can feel their encouragement.
I can feel their love.
I take in a deep breath, as unobtrusively as I can, and never losing my smile, projecting confidence into my voice so it doesn't waver, not one tiny bit, I say,
"The biggest challenge I have faced in my life was when my parents died in a car accident when I was a junior in high school…."
The gate outside the Wentworth house—no, I was going to have to revise my expectations and call it the Wentworth estate—was a large, black wrought iron affair between two heavy brick pillars. The gate design was of enormous roses, stems and leaves twining delicately through the uprights, which now split in half as the gates ponderously swung open in front of us.
I'd known the Wentworths were wealthy, but I hadn't imagined this. My family had been, I don't know, doing fine, before…before…
I sucked in a long, slow breath, forcing the tears back. My nose still felt swollen, tender from backed-up grief. I hadn't been sleeping well, and that made things worse.
In the sideview mirror, I watched the gates ease shut behind us.
Perfectly spaced trees lined both sides of the long driveway. Beeches, I thought, but tree identification wasn't my strong suit. No matter what they were, I imagined they looked spectacular in autumn. Now, at the beginning of summer, bright green leaves pushed out into a bushy cluster. They were all the same approximate shape and size, and in my exhaustion, made the driveway seem to go on and on, repeating endlessly, with the house at the end never seeming to get bigger.
Until bam, there it was, looming in front of us.
White against the green fields that surrounded it and the carefully trimmed hedges that bordered either side of the entranceway. Three stories, the top with dormer windows sticking out of the sloped grey-tiled roof. Big. Bigger than I'd expected, coming from a modest three-bedroom family home in town.
I'd said goodbye to that house this morning, forever.
This would be my new home for the next year or so, at least. I had no idea. It was hard to think beyond the next hour, the next moment. Grief, my counselor had told me, dicked with how we handled time. You stopped wanting to plan ahead, when all your plans had been shattered in an instant and the future was irrevocably changed, out of your control.
I liked my counselor. He hadn't pull punches. That had helped, a little.
Mrs. Wentworth—"But you can call me Gwendolyn, dear"—pulled up in front of the house (Mansion. Manor.), car tires crunching on the immaculate semicircle of pale pinky-beige gravel. "I'll pull the car into the garage later," she said, cutting the engine. "This way you get to see the house as it's meant to be seen."
I twisted around to grab my backpack from the back seat, then stepped out of the car. The summer air, heavy with the scent of cut grass, felt like a warm blanket on my bare arms after the air-conditioned car interior.
Four shallow, wide stone steps led up to the double front doors. I followed Mrs. Wentworth—I couldn't bring myself to call her Gwendolyn; I'd been taught to respect my elders—up, and she opened the left-hand door and let me precede her through. Her heels clicked on the black-and-white diamond-patterned marble floor as she came in and shut the door behind her.
Back into air-conditioning again, or at least cooler air. A massive, round, dark wood table sat before me, topped with an urn of fresh-cut roses. Their sweet scent permeated the entryway, so thick you could taste it. The two-story entryway was dimmer than outside, despite the afternoon sun gleaming through the stained-glass transom window above the front door to shatter a rainbow on the floor. I couldn't see the back of the house. This place just seemed to go on and on.
I took off my sunglasses, tucked them on the top of my head. They'd helped hide the circles under my eyes, inner bruises against my pale skin that Mrs. Wentworth had tsked over when she'd picked me up today, taking my chin in her manicured hand and turning my head this way and that, her famous blue eyes studying me so long I fought not to squirm.
Gwendolyn Wentworth had been a beauty queen, celebrated on the pageant circuit, first runner-up in a major competition, before marrying and having a daughter, Taryn. She'd married well—better than I'd realized, apparently—but Mr. Wentworth was no longer in the picture. I wasn't clear on those details.
And now she was my guardian until I turned eighteen.
Annabelle Moss. Orphan.
My parents had been driving home on a rainy night when a driver who'd enjoyed himself a little too much at a St. Patrick's Day party plowed into them. They were killed instantly, a fact that was supposed to give me some comfort ("They didn't suffer"), but all it gave me was the sharp, sudden severance of my old life. Relatively happy high school junior to devastated orphan in one phone call.
Aunt Patricia, my mother's sister, had taken a leave of absence from teaching college in the city and moved into our house so I could finish out the school year. I somehow managed to keep my grades up. The school had let me make up tests, let me slide on some assignments since I was a straight-A student already, and I appreciated that. I was hoping for scholarships to get me to a good university. Fingers crossed for Ivy League, but I'd be more than fine with the next tier down.
But Aunt Pat had a job to get back to, and a one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment she shared with her partner, Rhea. She'd been scouring rental listings every day, looking for a bigger place she could still afford on her and Rhea's salaries, and I was planning on a summer job to help out, when Gwendolyn Wentworth had swooped in like a fairy godmother and offered a solution.
I could live with her and Taryn, whom I vaguely knew from school. I'd be able to spend my last year of high school at the school I'd been going to all my life. She'd put me up, feed me, all that jazz, no strings attached. I had such a bright future, she said. She wanted to help.
And so, two days after the end of the semester, the paperwork had been signed, and here we were. My parents' house was on the market and Aunt Pat had gone back to the city, although from the way she'd hugged me goodbye, I'd wondered if she'd ever let me go.
Now we were pretty much the only family each other had.
I didn't really know Taryn at all, but I wondered if it would be like having a sister. I was an only child (I was nobody's child now), so I had no experience with that sort of thing. I had friends, but most of them had sort of…drifted away since my parents' accident. I suppose I'd stopped being much fun.
Fact was, I'd been so intent on getting through, on keeping my grades from plummeting, on surviving, that I hadn't had the energy for anything or anyone else.
Mrs. Wentworth led me through the downstairs, pointing out rooms: a powder room, the formal dining room, the formal living room, the music room, the den, another powder room, the solarium, the media room, the kitchen, the breakfast room, and I think a third powder room. There were back stairs (I wasn't sure if they were servant's stairs; I hadn't seen anyone else, but there was no way she kept this place clean on her own. Everything was sparkling, expensive, and immaculate. I was pretty sure I'd been able to see my reflection in the stainless steel refrigerator.), but she led me back to the rose-scented entryway so we could head to the second floor from there.
"Downstairs there's a pool and fitness room and sauna," she said.
There was a downstairs, too? I struggled to wrap my head around that.
"Everything is just beautiful, Mrs. Wentworth," I said. "You have an amazing house."
"Thank you, dear. It's so kind of you to say that."
"I think I need a map to find my away around, though," I added.
Her laugh was melodious. "You'll figure it out quickly," she said. "I know how smart you are, Annabelle." She added, more of a murmur, "And so pretty."
There was another reason, possibly the main reason, that Gwendolyn Wentworth had taken pity on me and scooped me up as a charity case to rescue. The former beauty queen wanted to share her knowledge and experience with me, because she saw my future (a future I was having trouble holding on to in my mind, but I was working on it) in pageants.
I'd done a few pageants as a child, and even though I'd loved it—the spotlight, the camaraderie, the attention—the family budget couldn't handle it. I'd done well enough, but we couldn't afford a top coach or expensive dresses or music lessons other than what the town offered on a sporadic basis. So I'd thrown my focus into school—math and computers were my passion, but I enjoyed science, too, especially the math-y parts—and saved my money from after-school and summer jobs, and I'd been headed for the county pageant this summer when, well, my world went to hell.
I'd had to back out of the county pageant, but Mrs. Wentworth was willing to be my patron, to teach me what I needed to know and buy the evening gowns and the makeup, and she was convinced we'd take the beauty competition world by storm.
It seemed unreal, the whole idea of it, right now. But it was also sort of a life raft that I clung to, something that would eventually give me a spark of hope.
Right now, I didn't have the energy to even think about it.
Two sets of stairs curved up, one on either side of the entryway, to meet at a balcony on the second floor. The balcony railing had the same rose pattern as the front gate.
We took the right-hand stairs. At the top, my sneakers sank into plush carpeting in a neutral cream hue. I wondered how it stayed so clean. Wide hallways stretched left and right. Mrs. Wentworth guided me to the right.
"Taryn?" she called. "We're home."
I heard shuffling, and from a doorway to the right, about halfway down the hall, Taryn Wentworth appeared.
She wore grey sweats and an oversized white T-shirt bearing artwork I didn't recognize. She was barefoot, and she held a book in her hand. As we approached, I saw it was a small black sketchbook. I'd forgotten until now that when I saw her at school, she often had one with her.
"Hey, Taryn," I said, raising a hand a little, not quite a wave.
"Hey," she said.
Everything had been so overwhelming—the drive, the house, all the details—and now, like an old movie where the picture fades away from the outside in, my world narrowed down to Taryn's face. It was all I could see.
Her brown eyes were barely visible beneath the bangs that half-obscured her face. Her drab-brown hair had been badly trimmed. Acne spotted her chin and the sides of her nose.
Most of all, though, I watched the parade of emotions that crossed her expression.
Pity. Resignation. A flicker of hope, although that one she managed to mask almost immediately, and I wondered what it meant. Or if I'd even seen it at all.
I searched for any sign of friendliness, of welcome, and found none.
I didn't blame her. I was an interloper, someone thrust into her life. I don't know whether her mother had discussed me with her, whether Taryn had had a choice or a vote in the matter.
Still, I felt a little piece inside of me curl up like a paper being eaten by a flame until there was nothing but a tiny pile of ash.
I needed a friend.
I wasn't going to find one in Taryn.