Beauty and the Beast ~ Book 1

The Winds of Change

by Tee Hoagland

PART 1:

Once Upon a Time in the City of New York

CHAPTER 1 ~ LOST

Catherine awoke to the obnoxious beeping of her alarm clock, ending the irritating noise with a blind swipe of her hand. She rolled to her back, rubbing her hands over her face, then stared out the French doors to her balcony. She smiled at the sunshine permeating the thin clouds hanging high in the sky and filtering through her sheer drapes, promising another beautiful spring day for New York City.

While preparing for work, she considered the day’s schedule: a three o’clock meeting, paperwork filling out the day, Tom’s party this evening. As she apathetically ticked off the duties, she wondered once again why her standard activities felt obligatory, rote, and sometimes tedious. She felt like nothing mattered anymore.

She tarried over breakfast, reading the morning paper, since nothing urgent called her to the office. She stifled the guilt that whispered through her about taking advantage of her position as the boss’ daughter regarding office hours, content with being thorough and efficient with her assignments as an attorney in her father’s corporate law firm. She simply could not motivate herself to equal her father’s wholehearted, energetic pursuit of the business.

Opting to run a few errands before work, she wandered through a first, then second, then third department store, searching out a gift for an upcoming birthday party, struck with the realization that her friend had no real needs. Catherine knew the party would be like every other before it: the same people, the same wines, and gifts that added nothing of substance to her friend’s life. It felt empty. Even looking at new accessories for her dress for Tom’s party, she remembered the contents of her closet and jewelry box. Dissatisfied with the futility of it all, she finally left the store empty-handed, heading to work. Brushing off the encroaching emptiness, determining to make the best she could of her day, she smiled.

As noon approached, Catherine stepped from the taxi onto the sidewalk outside the high-rise offices housing her father’s firm. Leaving the elevator on the firm’s floor, she proceeded to her father’s office, returning the greetings of various coworkers along the way.

Catherine passed the front desk without pause, giving Barbara, the receptionist, a cheerful, “Morning.”

“Not anymore,” Barbara retorted to Catherine’s departing form.

“Picky, picky,” Catherine called back, grinning. Removing her overcoat, she slung it over her arm, continuing down the hall of glass-walled offices.

“Great look,” remarked Arlene, eyeing Catherine’s outfit in passing.

“Thanks.” Catherine smiled at her fellow lawyer. Another associate left an office she passed, following her for a moment.

“Cathy,” Richard reminded her, doubt permeating his tone, “please don’t forget the settlement conference at three.”

“I’ll be there,” she reassured him, exasperation creeping into her tone, while turning a corner toward her father’s door. Entering the antechamber, she greeted his secretary with, “Hi, Joan.”

“Hi.” Joan smiled at Catherine from behind her desk.

Charles Chandler looked up when she entered his office, interrupting his phone call and welcoming her with a pleased, “Catherine!”

“Hi, Dad.” She laid her coat in one of the plush, wing-backed chairs before his desk, sat in the other, and set her briefcase on the floor beside her.

“Hal, let me call you back.” He hung up, telling her, “Hal Sherwood’s coming up from Atlanta tonight. Will you have dinner with us?”

“I can’t.” She gave a disappointed sigh, shaking her head. “Tom’s having a party for the architects of the new project. Another excuse to wine and dine the planning commission.”

“I used to be invited to all these functions.” He sounded only mildly disappointed. “I should’ve thought twice before I handed you over to our best client.”

“You make it sound like a horse trade,” she replied, grinning.

“Ehhhh…” He dragged the sound out for a moment. “You could do a lot worse than Tom Gunther.”

“And have.” She knew her raised eyebrows told her father whom she remembered.

“Well, how about dinner tomorrow night?”

“Well, let me get to my desk, check my calendar.” She began gathering her things.

“You just getting in?” Mild surprise colored his question. He stood when she did, and they moved toward each other.

“Had a late night. Had some errands to run today.”

He clasped his hands together, tipped his head, and frowned at her, both dubious and mildly scolding.

She chuckled softly, saying, “Sue me.”

“Well, it’s a little late for that. Should have sued you when you were five.” He frowned, concerned, sitting on the corner of his desk and looking up at her. “What’s up with you? You don’t enjoy the work? You don’t find it… stimulating?”

“When I think of corporate law, stimulating is not a word that immediately pops into mind.”

“Well, when you put your mind to it, you’re a fine corporate lawyer.”

“No, Dad. I’m the daughter of a fine corporate lawyer.” She smiled, kissed his cheek, then left.

In her own office, Catherine prepared reports, researched laws and precedents, and made phone calls. Three o’clock brought the settlement conference with Richard. Duties fulfilled there, her workday finished with more of the same. Before leaving work, she noted on her calendar to have dinner with her father the next night. She stopped by his office to tell him; he paused his phone call, giving a smile and nod in acknowledgement. Flagging a taxi, she mentally listed her preparations for Tom’s party. During her ride home, she wondered why her career left her both weary and restless.

* * *

“You look lovely,” remarked Tom when Catherine opened her door that evening.

“Thank you.” She disliked the way his gaze ran over her, appraising and possessive. His manner of late presumed a control over her which she refused to cede. What once passed as confidence now appeared merely arrogant.

On the ride to the party, Catherine languidly listened as Tom explained whom she would meet, which benefits these people offered himself and her father’s firm, and what he expected of her to help him solidify their connections to attain these benefits.

As they entered the reception hall, Catherine noted the vacuous lavishness of the party, including extravagant foods and desserts, waiters in tuxedos with bottles of champagne, an ice sculpture of the building Tom had under construction, and prominent guests dressed in their finest. She cringed inside while Tom paraded her around like an accessory on his arm. Then she smiled with the reprieve of seeing a friend from college across the room, doubly pleased with a reason to break away from Tom.

“Excuse me,” Catherine told Tom and the men discussing his project with him. She noted the quick frown Tom gave her, but did nothing to placate it, moving toward her friend.

“Eve, how are you?” Catherine greeted her friend at the refreshment table.

“Cathy?” Eve smiled, embracing her. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Likewise.”

“So, how are things going?” asked Eve as they gathered refreshments and sat at a table.

“I’ve been with my father’s firm since law school. It’s steady, pays well, and has great perks.” Catherine grinned on the last comment.

“I bet,” Eve conceded, smiling. Then the corners of her lips pulled down slightly and her brow furrowed. “Is it… fulfilling?”

Catherine’s smile faltered; she ducked her head, considering the question. Looking back at Eve, she shrugged a shoulder.

“It’s a job.” Catherine watched Eve nod, understanding. “How about you? What’s going on in your life?”

Eve huffed a mirthless laugh, asking, “Do you really want to know?”

“What’s wrong?” Catherine frowned, leaning toward Eve.

“The last few years have been really rough for Jim and me. I got a job right out of college, but he struggled to find work. The first year of our marriage, it wasn’t so bad. Then it started driving a wedge between us. It got worse after…” Eve paused and pressed her lips together, a vain effort to stop their quivering.

“What happened?”

“I, uh…” Eve paused again. “I lost a baby.”

“Oh, Eve! I’m so sorry.” Catherine stretched a hand toward Eve, and she squeezed it, giving a nod and half smile. When Eve pulled away, Catherine crossed her arms, leaning into the table. She saw Tom glance her way from the sculpture of the skyscraper, but dismissed his look, giving her hurting friend all her attention.

Across the room, Tom gestured to the sculpture, telling the men with him, “Well, they can’t get it quite right in the sculpture, but, um, it gives you a pretty good idea of the way it’s going to be.” He noted Catherine sitting with someone, frowned briefly, then smiled at the men he addressed. “Now, we’re very pleased. I’m sure you’ll find that the overages are money well spent.” He smiled, patting the arm of one of the men, excusing himself.

“That was about a year and a half ago,” Eve continued to Catherine, gazing at the table. “He started drinking after that. Then six months ago, I found out he was hitting bars with friends and cheating on me. When I confronted him, he filed for a divorce. He told me to just pretend like he was dead.”

“I’m sorry, Eve. Things will turn around.”

“How are you doing?” Tom asked Catherine, approaching and leaning beside her, one hand on the table, his other arm stretched around the back of her chair. “You all right?”

“Fine.” Catherine smiled up at him, then turned back to Eve. “Eve and I haven’t seen each other since college.”

“We were just catching up,” Eve said.

“Good,” Tom said to Eve. Then he looked at Catherine, declaring, “I need to talk to you.” He smiled, stepping back so she could stand, but kept his hand on the back of her chair.

As she rose, Catherine asked Eve, “Would you excuse us for a minute?”

Tom placed a proprietary hand on Catherine’s back, leading her away from the table and listening ears toward a quiet place by the stairs.

“What’s with you?” Tom asked as Catherine turned toward him.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve been,” Tom cast a disparaging glare Eve’s way, “sitting over there listening to her blubber half the night.”

“Well, she’s going through a rough time.” Catherine gazed sympathetically at Eve. “She and I used to be good friends.” She gave Tom a smile.

“Well, I know her.” Tom’s condescending glance shifted between Catherine and Eve. “She’s a lush. She was married to a lush. She’s a complete loser.”

“You’re very compassionate.” Disgusted by his meanness, Catherine did nothing to disguise her sarcasm.

Tom smiled patronizingly, taking her hand and saying, “Come on. You stick with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Catherine huffed a sigh, closed her eyes a moment, and replied, “Oh, Tom, I’m just not into it tonight. I’m sorry.”

“I thought I could count on you.”

“You can.”

“Maybe I expect too much.”

“This is a party.” Catherine looked around, gesturing to the room. “It’s not brain surgery.”

“I really don’t have time for this now.” Tom gripped her unresponsive hand, trying to coax a reaction.

“Frankly, I don’t like being told who I can talk to.”

Tom ignored her stern tone, glancing at a woman coming down the stairs beside them, then directed, “Then show better judgment.”

From the corner of her eye, Catherine saw the woman turn as someone called the name, “Carol?” Then the woman passed by them.

“Fine,” Catherine asserted. “I think I’ll call it a night.”

“That’s not an option.”

“Oh, it’s not?” Catherine pulled her hand from his and returned to Eve. “Eve, I’m sorry. I’m going to have to call you tomorrow.” She gathered her coat and handbag, leaving the party without a glance at Tom.

Catherine sought the privacy of the women’s restroom, venting a bit of her frustration and composing herself before leaving. Displeasure with Tom filled her as she donned her coat and made her way to the street. His insolent attitude engendered more disappointment than surprise. Memories from the few months since they began dating flittered through her mind, presenting more hints of his egocentric nature, and inspiring regret. She questioned why she was even with him. Their whole relationship felt expected; this was just what she should be doing at this time and place in her life. She wished she could escape the superficiality of merely going through the motions of life. There must be something more – something better – than this out there.

Catherine rushed to the edge of the sidewalk, waving her hand and yelling, “Taxi!” at a passing cab. Pulling her coat closer around her, she shook her head, standing at the mouth of an alley and awaiting another cab.

“Say,” said a stocky man, approaching her with a smile. “You’re, uh…,” he laughed softly, “you’re not having very much luck. I’ll get one for you. I’m an expert.” Still smiling, he stepped into the street and called, “Yo! Taxi!” He looked back at her, shrugging as a cab passed him.

Catherine watched the stocky man return, hearing an engine roar to life behind her. She turned and saw the headlights of a van coming down the alley.

The stocky man stepped behind her, grabbed her elbows, and said, “Hey, Carol, you goin’ home alone tonight?”

Shock and fear paralyzed Catherine, preventing her resistance. The van pulled in front of them, and the side door slid open. The stocky man shoved her inside, climbing in behind her. She cried out as her hands broke her fall to the floor of the empty van. A thin man covered with tattoos grabbed her, pinning her prostrate on the floor. The stocky man closed the door as the van sped away from the curb. They flipped her face up. The thin man pinned her wrist above her head, his other hand trapping her hips against the floor. The stocky man knelt over her, his knee between her legs, one hand pressing her other wrist to the floor while the other hand traced her face. Panic engulfed her as they crowded her; she cried out in pain and terror.

“Shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh. Yeah, that’s a girl,” crooned the stocky man, pushing her hair out of her eyes. “That’s a girl. Shh, that’s a girl.” He traced a finger down her face, over her lips. “Yeah, you know what happens to little girls with big mouths, huh?”

“You’re gonna find out.” The thin man sounded gleeful.

“Hey, Carol…,” the stocky man maintained his chiding tone, “you have got to remember to keep your mouth shut from now on.”

Catherine shook her head, pleading with them, “My name isn’t Carol!”

“Shut up!” yelled the stocky man. “You’re gonna remember…” he released her chin and pulled out a knife, grinning as he pressed the spring release open near her face, “every time you look in the mirror.”

Catherine cried out, struggling to free herself.

The stocky man brought the blade close to her face.

“Please!” Catherine begged. “My name isn’t Carol!” The thin man drove his knee into her side, nearly driving the air from her lungs. “You have the wrong woman! Please let me go!” Another knee to the same spot winded her; sharp pain shot through her torso.

What followed burned into her memory. Fists pummeled; knees struck; her back slammed against hard metal and her head bounced; a sharp knife sliced her face; laughter echoed at her agonized, terrified cries. Horrified of what they would do if she passed out, Catherine clung to wakefulness. Then the side door of the van opened; she rolled out onto an embankment in what must be Central Park, as consciousness abandoned her.

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