A wiser person would have stayed put. But the beast had not harmed her … yet. And Vynasha needed answers.
Excerpt from CRAVING BEAUTY © 2023 Jennifer Silverwood. All rights reserved. No portion of this excerpt may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law.
The path ended at a tall, blackened door, which creaked as she pushed against it. She stumbled back when it swung the rest of the way on its own, revealing an enormous dining hall inside. Heads of beasts and skulls of legendary dragons were mounted on wooden posts high above. The tapestries in this hall were grander than those she had seen thus far and shimmered in the light of the flames. Every candlestick in every corner was lit, from the walls to the long wooden dining table sitting in the room’s center.
Vynasha willed new strength into her bad leg as she carefully took the few steps and entered the room with the soft swish of skirts. A dozen different aromas wafted from the bowls and plates waiting at the head of the table. She tried not to be intimidated by the tall chair she sank into.
The hot meal was separated by so much silverware and glasses filled with different drinks that she scarcely knew where to begin. With a quick glance for her absent host, Vynasha snatched a fork and tucked into the fresh food as quickly as she dared.
A low moan escaped her throat as her taste buds sang against her first hot meal in weeks. Her eyelashes fluttered as the candle flames wavered in a sudden draft. Slow, labored steps echoed in the dining hall, the heavy animal-like breath accompanied by the click of clawed feet muffled on carpeted stone.
Her fork clattered against her silver plate. The back of her neck froze against the sudden weight of eyes. Biting back a curse, Vynasha moved her hand to grasp a tall glass by its neck and began to drink the startlingly sweet liquid. When she shut her eyes, she could almost hear a voice say, “You are safe, Beauty.”
Vynasha turned toward the hearth to greet a tall figure garbed in an indigo robe as it emerged from the shadows. The darkness he drew from clung to him still, masking his features as he greeted in a rumbling voice, “Enjoying your dinner, my lady?”
It was the beast from her dream. The voice in the wind.
“It’s you,” Vynasha breathed, her grip painfully tight on the arms of her chair.
The beast shifted, a subtle tilt of a shadowed paw as he approached two chairs set before the great hearth. “Apologies for the meager fare, but we cannot afford better with the wolves attacking our borders constantly.”
“Why are you not joining me?” Her voice creaked as she took in the shift of a tail beneath his sapphire cloak, the twitch of pointed, furred ears, the glint of horns.
His massive head shifted, revealing a sleek, black-nosed snout, casting his silvery fur with golden firelight. “As you might have guessed, it is not a simple matter for me to eat as you do. I would not wish to ruin your appetite.”
Her meal forgotten, Vynasha gathered her skirts and crossed the hall to meet him. A wiser person would have stayed put. But the beast had not harmed her … yet. And Vynasha needed answers. The swish of her skirts met the beast’s ears and his silver fur bristled in the firelight.
“Are you so certain you wish to greet a monster, Beauty?” He sank against the wings of a high-backed chair.
Vynasha’s fists clenched her skirts as she slowed her steps. “You don’t seem like a monster to me,” she whispered as she caught the jewel glimmer of his green eyes.
“You may feel differently one day,” he replied, hand stretching out, black claws clicking together. “But if you insist, please. Have a seat, my lady.”
“That depends.” Vynasha ducked her head as she rounded the other high-back chair and dared peek at the beast. Deeply set eyes burned into hers, set above a muzzled jaw, framed by golden horns which gleamed atop his head like a crown. He was greater in breadth and size than any beast or man, yet seemed to be trapped somewhere in-between. Her breath caught in her throat, yet still, she asked, “Am I your prisoner?”
“Yes,” he said with a grave rumble, but for his eyes. Those too-intelligent, too-human eyes left her with the sense she was far more than a prisoner.
You should be terrified.
But she was too curious to be terrified just yet. No matter how impossible such a creature must be, her captor may be the only one that had the answers she sought. Vynasha worried her lip between her teeth as she dared to sit in the seat beside the beast. “For how long?”
The beast tilted his head slightly, lips curling back at the side to reveal sharp fangs. “That depends entirely upon you, Beauty.”
Vynasha pushed her shoulders back and answered with more strength than she felt. “I suppose it was too much to hope for a forthright answer.”
A low rumble answered her, that she soon realized was a chuckle. “You may suppose, indeed. Unfortunately, I am as bound by enchantment as you in this cursed place. There is much I cannot tell you. But please ask, and I shall give what answers I can.”
Holding his heavy stare was difficult. Vynasha couldn’t remember the last time someone held her gaze without disgust or pity. She worked the soft fabric between her fingers and wondered again why she wasn’t afraid. Certainly, this beast was dangerous. The promise of violence was writ in his claws and teeth, yet his eyes were almost kind. And he appeared to be as curious of her as she was of him.
“I heard your voice before.” She paused to catch her breath, and his gaze sharpened. “I heard you call to me in the wind.” She shook her head and ducked her chin. “I sound completely mad, I know.”
A silver-furred hand, shaped like a man’s, tipped with black claws, reached in the space between them, only to curl back again. “Why am I surprised you should ask the one thing I cannot say above all else?” The rumble behind his voice might have been another laugh if not for the strain in his voice.
Vynasha forgot her heated cheeks as she met his sad gaze. “I’m not a fool, you know. I know there’s a heavy enchantment over this place. My mother could speak with her roses. I know a little about magick, and I know that you or this place called me here. I’d like to know why.”
The beast nodded slowly as his gaze shifted to take her in before settling on her eyes. He didn’t spare a second glance at her scars. “Magick has called you here, but forgive me, I cannot tell you why.”
Vynasha sank into her chair with a sigh and managed, at last, to tear her gaze from the beast to the fire. “You said this place is cursed, and the bindings on you must be strong. I just wish…”
“What do you wish, Beauty?” the Beast was quick to interject.
Vynasha grimaced. “That you’d stop calling me Beauty, to begin. My name is Vynasha, and it fits me far better than that silly nickname ever could.”
The beast hummed deep in his throat. “Beauty is far more than flesh, Vynasha. I call you Beauty because you are.”
Vynasha pressed her lips together as the heat returned to her cheeks. She couldn’t be sure if she was angry at his insistence or flattered. Yet if he knew who she really was, and what she had done, he wouldn’t find her so deserving.
“And if there are to be introductions,” he continued with the hint of a smile, “I suppose you may call me Ferox, or Beast, as you prefer.”
Her cheek strained from the smile she hadn’t noticed she returned. Vynasha ducked her head, aware her smiles were no pretty thing. “Beast, I heard that others have come here before. Are they… A young man came through these lands. Perhaps he is still a guest?”
The beast was silent for a moment. “Many have come to our realm in search of an answer to their woes,” he began. “Most perish before reaching our gates. You are fortunate to have reached our doors unscathed, Beauty.”
“Oh,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut before the tears could escape. Her nails dug painfully into her palms.
He’s not dead. You would have felt it.
Candlelight shivered between them as the wind kicked up and then settled back with a hush.
“Beauty?” Ferox’s voice drew closer. “I am sorry I do not have the answers you seek. What I can offer you, however, is the chance to rest and recover from your journey.” His green eyes glowed with compassion and an unspoken plea.
She clenched the fabric of her skirts even tighter. “What do you propose?”
“Remain here in this castle as my guest willingly, and I will see to your every need,” he began.
“My horse, Dragos?” she interrupted. “I won’t leave him in the cold so close to whatever haunts your lands.”
Ferox inclined his head. “Your friend is already a guest in our stables and quite content, as my servants last reported.”
Vynasha bit back a smile. “And my bow, my pack? There are things inside I’d like returned to me.”
At this, Ferox grimaced. “I am sorry, my lady, but you were discovered half dead before this hearth with nothing but the ruined clothes upon your back.”
Vynasha slumped into her chair and swallowed back fresh tears. “What else?” she asked, with a strength she didn’t feel. “What’s in it for you?”
“Besides the pleasure of your company? You shall dine with me here each night, but I must request, for your safety, that unless you have an escort, you remain locked in your room.”
Vynasha’s muscles ached with fresh tension and the crackle of magick beneath her skin. “Can you tell me why?”
Ferox shook his head slowly, an unspoken apology in his emerald eyes. “This castle is not a safe place after moonrise. Even I do not wander while the mad beasts roam the castle.”
“What if I refuse? What if I take my horse and leave tonight?” Not that she had any intention of wandering alone in these black, enchanted halls. Not that her body was fit to carry her anywhere without provisions.
All humor and kindness fled Ferox’s beastly visage. “Then you will indeed find yourself locked inside a prison of your own making, Beauty.”
July 14, 2023
Jennifer Silverwood has been involved in the publishing world since 2012 and is passionate about supporting the writing community however she can. After studying traditional art at university, she began helping Qamber Designs bring authors’ books to life. In real life, she’s a mom of two, a passionate reader, and an occasional artist. Jennifer is the author of three series—Borderlands, Wylder Tales, and the Heaven’s Edge Novellas—and the stand-alone romance titles Stay and She Walks in Moonlight. For more about books, writing, and beauty, visit: jennifersilverwood.com