Maurice returned to Villeneuve the following evening. Despite having sold most of his wares at the market, his heart was heavy with disappointment. Once Belle had helped him unload, they went inside for dinner, and he promptly explained why.
"The windmill box broke just when I arrived in La Fontaine. I hit a bump in the road and it fell out of the wagon. It smashed straight against the cobblestones. By the time I was able to get it back from all the feet and hooves that had trampled on it, it was pretty well done for."
"Oh Papa, that's terrible!" Belle said, frowning at him in sympathy. "You worked so hard on that one too."
"Yes, well there's no use crying for shed milk, my dear. I doubt I would have gotten a good price for it anyway. It turns out that merchants aren't interested in purchasing music boxes with dioramas of domestic life anymore. Pastoral landscapes and scenes from Greek mythology are all collectors care about now. I only wish I'd known that before I started the blasted thing." He shook his head and sighed.
Belle reached across the table and patted her father's hand consolingly. One of the challenges of living in a rural town was that news took twice as long to travel here as it did in the major cities. Whenever new art trends hit the markets, Maurice was the last to know about them. It was why he often said that making money as a country artist was like shooting a pistol blind, with no guarantee that you'd ever hit your intended mark. Of course, the easiest solution would be to move to a city, but Maurice claimed he liked it better here because it was "safer." Belle had questioned this statement on several occasions, but kept her thoughts to herself, knowing she'd get nowhere if she tried voicing them aloud.
"Anyway," Maurice continued, waving his hand dismissively, "I've already ordered the replacement parts I need, so no harm done. I just need to wait for them to arrive in the post so I can start the repairs. In the meantime, I'm going to work on some simpler boxes, seeing as the windmill may not sell as well as I'd hoped."
"I know you'll fetch a good price for it, Papa," said Belle, with the unwavering confidence she had always had in him. "Nobody puts as much time and detail into your work as you do. These merchants would have to be fools not to recognize your talent."
"I hope you're right." Maurice smiled appreciatively. "I certainly wouldn't say no to a bit of recognition after all these years. And I also know how long you've been waiting to move out of Villeneuve so we can start our next adventure. Believe me, that day will come sooner than you think. I'll find a way to get us that money, even if I have to take my business to our neighbours. Say, you don't suppose that Gaston fellow would like a portrait commission, do you?" His eyes twinkled mischievously.
Belle snorted. "To be honest, I don't think he'd be able to hold still for that long. He can't even walk through the village square without stopping to preen himself and admire his reflection. He'd make a terrible model."
"Good point. I won't ask him then." Her father was trying to lighten the mood, and Belle appreciated it. After the humiliating ordeal she'd faced in the village square a day ago, she too was praying for an opportunity to leave this town; sooner rather than later.
"So," Maurice continued after taking a few bites out of the roast chicken dinner his daughter had made for him. "Anything interesting happen while I was away?"
"Well… I got a new book." Belle paused for a moment, then added, "I also went to the Château de la Rose yesterday to speak with the Prince." She hesitated again, feeling a bit embarrassed disclosing the rest. But she'd never hidden anything from her father and wasn't about to start now. "And..." she continued, "he asked me to stay for dinner."
Maurice spat out the water he'd been drinking from his cup, causing Belle to duck out of the way to narrowly avoid getting sprayed in the face. "You ate dinner with the Prince?" he gasped, staring at her in disbelief.
"I know it sounds absurd, Papa, but it's true!" Unable to contain her eagerness, she described the event from start to finish: Mr. Potts's suggestion that she speak with the Prince about reforming the schooling system in her village, getting a ride to the castle, meeting with His Highness, talking with him over dinner about her interests in reading and Shakespeare…
"By Jove," Maurice remarked once she had finished. "I had no idea that Prince Adam was in the habit of treating his subjects so generously."
"I didn't know either," Belle concurred. "But I mean… I'm sure that his reasons for doing so were harmless. He just wanted to get to know me better so he could understand why I wanted the village girls to attend school with the boys. That's all."
"Or… maybe he fancies you," Maurice suggested with a smirk.
Belle laughed and lowered her eyes. "I doubt that. Just think of how many people he interacts with in a single day. I'm sure he's already forgotten my name."
Even as she said it, Belle didn't completely believe it. She had been thinking a lot about that strange connection she'd felt with Prince Adam last evening, and whether she'd ever experience that kind of closeness with someone again. At the same time, a part of her worried that their bond had been a figment of her imagination. After all, the Prince could have only been acting nice to her because he'd felt bad for her situation and the efforts she'd taken to seek an audience with him. And maybe she'd been overly excited about speaking with someone who didn't think she was odd for having hobbies like reading and inventing. While Belle considered herself perceptive, she also knew that her ability to read people and situations wasn't entirely perfect.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. "I'll get it!" Belle volunteered, who was sitting closest to the front of the cottage.
Opening the door, she was met by a young man dressed in a gold and brown suit, not unlike the one she'd seen Lumière and Cogsworth wearing when she'd visited the castle the day before. "Bonsoir, mademoiselle," the man said, stooping himself down into a low bow. "I have an invitation here for a Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier?"
"That would be me," said Belle, furrowing her brows.
"Parfait." Smiling, the man handed her an envelope with a seal bearing the Prince's royal crest. "On behalf of my master, Prince Adam de Bauffremont, your presence has been requested at an exclusive formal gathering."
"It has?" Belle took the envelope from the man in surprise. "What sort of gathering?"
"A summer solstice party, mademoiselle. The Prince hosts one every year for the nobility in the area, and for you too, it would seem. You'll find all the necessary information written inside the envelope."
"I see." She bit her lip. "Well, thank you very much, monsieur."
"My pleasure. Passez une bonne soirée." The man tipped his hat and made his way back down the porch. Puzzled, and half-wondering if this was some kind of hoax, Belle shut the door and returned to her father.
"Who was that, Belle?" Maurice asked curiously.
"It was a messenger from the castle. He... just gave me an invitation to Prince Adam's summer solstice party."
"Really?" He raised his brows intriguingly. "But I thought you said that the Prince has already forgotten your name."
"I guess I thought wrong." Overcome by curiosity, Belle broke open the seal and unfolded the parchment to reveal a letter written in beautiful calligraphy. Holding it close to the candle on the table, she read:
His Royal Highness, Prince Adam de Bauffremont kindly requests the company of Mademoiselle Belle Gagnier in a celebration of the upcoming summer solstice, scheduled to take place in the grounds of the Château de la Rose on the 20th of June at three o'clock in the afternoon. Please retain this invitation to present to the concierge upon your arrival.
Robert-Alexis LePlume, Official Secretary to His Royal Highness
Belle couldn't believe her eyes. The letter seemed genuine, but she was still confused. What could have possibly possessed the Prince to invite her to his party, of all people?
"You did what?! What could have possibly possessed you to invite her?"
"I'm sorry, Master," said Lumière. He stood in the doorway of the Prince's bureau, trying to look innocent, but failing. "I was under the assumption that you would look forward to her company again. Was I mistaken?"
Adam ran his hand through his hair and shook his head, appalled by his maître d's clear lack of seriousness in the matter. "The summer solstice party has always been an exclusive royal function, Lumière. Nobility from all over this side of France will be attending. No one in my family has invited anyone from the lower class to attend since well… ever."
"All the more reason for you to break with tradition." Lumière grinned. "Besides, I doubt that your stellar reputation will be marred by the presence of one peasant girl. And you did pay quite a bit of attention to her when she came to speak with you earlier this week."
Adam's face flushed at Lumière's insinuation. It seemed that there were no secrets when it came to his resident "love expert"—a fact that he found to be more of a hindrance than a help. "My reasons for inviting Mademoiselle Gagnier to dine with me were strictly professional," he justified, not in the mood for revealing his true feelings on the matter. "She had some good ideas on how to make education more accessible to the girls in her village, and I wanted to hear them."
"Je vois. And yet… you've never invited a subject to dinner before, or arranged a carriage to take them home after," Lumière noted. "Come now, Master. The truth is, the other staff members and I are getting worried about you. You're nearly twenty-six years old and you're always so focused on your work. You never have time to relax or socialize the way you used to. I'm not saying that your strong work ethic isn't a welcome improvement from well… before. But if you keep this up, you'll become a stuffy shut-in, just like Cogsworth! What's the harm in taking a bit of time to focus on something outside of drafting bylaws or addressing complaints from your subjects? Even the Emperor of France takes a day off from his duties from time to time."
"I'm not a shut-in!" Adam protested. "I just… prefer working alone in my bureau to socializing with other people. That's all."
"Sounds like the textbook definition of a shut-in to me." Lumière smirked. "Look, Master. I'm not saying you have to fall in love with the girl. But at least give her a chance, peut-être? According to Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth, she is quite the conversation piece in her village. Keep her around, and maybe you'll find out why."
Adam groaned. If only Lumière knew the real reason why he didn't want to "get to know" Belle better: he was already familiar with her outcast status, and how falling in love with her was not only inevitable, but a death wish. All of his past attempts at wooing Belle had ended in misery and destruction, which was why he had to burn that bridge while he still had the chance. But the fact remained: Lumière had sent her an invitation. And as embarrassed as Adam was by his servant's impudence, he'd look even more unprofessional if he wrote her a second letter, explaining the mix-up. He would simply have to act like her invitation had been intentional, treating Belle as any other party guest.
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to have her, if she comes," he conceded. "But Lumière, pull a stunt like this again, and I swear… I'll make you put all the lights off in the castle for a week."
"Me, Master?" Lumière pointed to himself, puzzled by the Prince's unusual choice of punishment.
"Yes, you. Now tell Mrs. Potts I'll be down to take my luncheon at one o'clock. You may go."
Still confused, Lumière bowed to the Prince and left the room.
Once he was gone, Adam crossed his arms and turned his gaze to the window. He still needed to finish up his paperwork for the morning but felt too restless to continue after what his maître d' had told him.
It had been over five years since Agathe had restored Adam to his humanity and his original timeline. Since then, he had done his best to put the experiences of his alternate realities behind him, taking what he'd learned from the past to improve his future. Sure, maybe he still dreamt about Belle some nights and wondered what she was doing in Picardy, then Villeneuve. As a prince, he had full access to the kingdom's census records, meaning he'd known exactly when she and her father had moved to the little village two years prior. But he dismissed all these habits and thoughts as harmless behaviours, nothing that years of distractions and royal commitments couldn't stamp out of him. Belle would fall in love with a man who was truly her equal, and Adam would be at peace, knowing he'd helped make that life a reality for her. As long as she was happy, then so was he.
But then, Belle had made a surprise visit to his bureau two days ago. All of Adam's hard-built convictions came crumbling to dust. For a moment, he'd feared that her appearance was a trick of the Enchantress, come to torment him again after all these years. It was only after Belle had addressed him with an uncharacteristically stilted formality that he realized she didn't recognize him. This fact had disappointed him, but also comforted him. For if Belle didn't remember him, then that meant that Agathe had kept her promise. Their days of passing time together in the castle and embarking on their perilous journey to Brocéliande were nothing more than inconsequential dreams.
And so, Adam played along with Belle's obliviousness. Throughout their meeting and subsequent interview, he'd tried not to overstep any boundaries, or betray anything in his countenance to reveal how well he already knew her. When he invited her to dinner, it was out of courteousness, not affection. He'd done nothing beyond what had been expected of him as a gentleman and host of his castle. At least... that's what he kept telling himself.
Adam would never forgive Lumière for sending Belle that party invitation without his permission. But he was certain she wouldn't want to come. She'd hated being a "charity case" at Princess Amandine's birthday ball, so why would she feel any differently about attending this aristocrat-only function he was hosting? She would surely decline his invitation, and then they'd continue to live their lives as distant acquaintances. Adam refused to interfere with whatever fate had planned for Belle, regardless of Lumière's sly attempts at playing matchmaker.