Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 17 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

Late the next morning, Danielle awoke when her maid brought in her breakfast tray. As she was eating, the maid was chattering away about the weather and which dress Danielle wanted to wear. "The Queen's dressmaker had these three trunks of dresses, slippers, cloaks, undergarments and all kinds of accessories delivered for you yesterday, my lady. She said the Queen ordered them for you."

Danielle got out of bed and padded over to the trunks lined up along the far wall. She opened the first one, astonished at the array of beautiful gowns within. She opened the second and third trunks, seeing yet more gowns, each more beautiful than the last. She didn't know what to say or think about such generosity. It was like having a fairy Godmother.

Nicole came in then to discuss what was on the agenda for the day. Seeing the overflowing trunks she exclaimed, "Ooh! Look at all of these gorgeous gowns! The Queen sent me a trunk full, too." She twirled around, showing Danielle her new dress. "Isn't it lovely?" Nicole was glowing with pleasure. "She obviously likes me in blue. All of my new gowns are blue," she laughed delightedly. Digging through Danielle's trunks she pulled out a nearly identical gown. "Oh, look, here is yours, in green. I know the Prince loves you in green. I see that most of your new gowns are green. I see a theme developing here."

While they were discussing their new finery and exploring the treasures in the trunks, there was a knock at the door to Danielle's apartment. The maid went to see who it was. She came back into the bedchamber and told Danielle that Marguerite was here to see her. "Thank you, Suzanne. Please ask her to come in here," Danielle said.

Marguerite came into the room a bit awkwardly. "Good morning Danielle, Nicole."

"Good morning, Marguerite," they answered in chorus.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Danielle. I was wondering if you could spare me a few minutes of your time to speak privately at some point today."

"We can talk now, if you like. You don't mind, Nicole? I'll come by your room when I am ready."

"Of course, Danielle. I don't mind at all." She nodded to Marguerite on her way out.

Danielle sat down next to the dressing table and regarded Marguerite curiously. Marguerite looked uncomfortably at the maid, who was laying out Danielle's new green gown. "Suzanne, would you mind getting us some fresh tea?" Danielle asked the girl, in order to give Marguerite the privacy she seemed to desire.

"Of course, my lady. I will only be a few minutes," with that she left them alone.

"Thank you for agreeing to see me alone. This is very awkward... If I were in your place I wouldn't be as gracious as you are. I wanted to apologize on behalf of my mother and myself. She will never do so… When we heard the rumor that Prince Henry was going to be allowed to choose his own bride, Mother depended upon me enticing him to marry me. I was drawn to the allure of being Queen, with all of the attendant wealth and power. Prince Henry, the man, was really a secondary consideration, I'm ashamed to admit. Mother wouldn't have cared if he were a toad, as long as he was heir to the throne. She had me convinced that I was beautiful enough to ensnare any man in marriage. Beauty, courteous behavior and allurement were all that were necessary- according to her." Danielle actually felt sorry for Marguerite, hearing this. " Marguerite took a deep breath, walking around the room restlessly. "I had no idea you were a comtesse, Danielle. I'm sorry that our ambitions ruined your chance at happiness."

"Thank you."

Marguerite walked up to the dressing table and picked up Danielle's new hairbrush, a gift from the Queen. With downcast eyes she turned and walked behind Danielle. She began very gently to brush Danielle's hair, as Danielle had done for her so many times in the past.

"Why are you brushing my hair, Marguerite?" Danielle asked gently.

"I feel I need to do something to make up for the comtemptible way I have treated you and all of the shameful, selfish things I have done." She continued to brush Danielle's hair. "When I see how the Prince looks at you, I am both envious and amazed. He seems to light up from the inside, his eyes so full of love. I had never seen a man look at a woman in such a way. When you appeared at the masque, I thought he was looking at me for a moment. I have seen desire in the eyes of many men, but this is something deeper. The King and Queen love you, too. Even your mother's family, who you have only known for a few days, clearly loves you. When I walked in on you and your cousin this morning, you looked so happy. So like sisters should be that I feel ashamed we were not the family you needed when your father died."

"Thank you, Marguerite," said Danielle, moved by Marguerite's words and the humble act of brushing her hair.

"There is something in you that inspires love in others. I think that lovability is what my mother envies about you. Your father loved you more than her and that she could not accept. My mother is incapable of love, but she knows it exists. She doesn't inspire it in others and when the one she wanted to love her- loved you instead- she blamed you and hated you for it. It was as if you had stolen something of immeasurable value from her."

The maid returned with the tea then. The girls went over to sit at the table and drink the tea. Danielle was searching for a lighter topic of conversation, "What do you think of Capt. Laurent? He seems very taken with Jacqueline."

"Really? Prince Henry's captain of the guard?"

"Yes, haven't you noticed how he seeks her company?"

"N-no, I hadn't noticed. Am I really so self-absorbed that I am oblivious to what is going on around me?"

"Well, it has been very stressful, lately, with so much going on. If you watch them together I think you will see."

The door opened and the Duchess swept in. "Danielle, child, you are not even dressed. Get up and come over here so that Suzanne may braid your hair." Looking at Marguerite she said, "Good morning, Marguerite."

Danielle obediently got up and went over to have her hair braided as Marguerite said, "Good morning, Your Grace." Marguerite watched the Duchess and Danielle together, thinking they seemed like a loving mother and daughter. Thinking aloud without realizing it she said, "Why would my mother have kept Danielle with us all of these years when you wanted to give her a home? It doesn't make sense. She never even liked Danielle."

The two Danielles looked at Marguerite. The Duchess simply said, "That is a good question. I expect it has to do with your mother wanting to maintain control over Danielle's inheritance. Luckily, the bulk of her estate was never available to your mother. My husband took care to see that Château de Lancret and the monies inherited from her grandfather were well invested and safe."

"I have a château?" Danielle asked, startled. She hadn't considered that there was more to her inheritance than the title.

"Yes, the Château de Lancret is a large castle in northern France. Your mother and I grew up there. You are one of the wealthiest heiresses in France, Danielle."

Danielle was speechless at the news.

Marguerite also had had no idea that Danielle was wealthy. One of the wealthiest heiresses in France? It made her feel small, poor and unequal to her step-sister. Somehow, it made her mother's mistreatment of Danielle even worse. "Thank you, Danielle. I am going to see if I can find where Jacqueline has gone off to this morning. Your Grace," she curtseyed to leave.

The Duchess observed after Marguerite had left, "She certainly doesn't appear half as awful as everyone says she is. Is it all an act, do you think?"

Danielle pondered before answering. "I do not believe it an act. She has done some horribly mean and selfish things over the years, but I sense a genuine change in her. What will become of her and Jacqueline?"

"I do not know what will be done with them. For now, they appear to be staying, but when the court moves to Paris in a few weeks I do not know."

Danielle's hair was done and Suzanne helped her don the pretty green gown that Nicole had selected. It was an exact replica of Nicole's, but for the colour, of course. When Danielle was ready, they stopped to get Nicole and continued down to the courtyard.

Danielle spent a simply charming day in the company of her aunt and cousin, exploring the extensive gardens and getting to know each other. They had lunch with the Queen, in her garden, and Danielle was surprised how naturally she found herself relating to these illustrious people. She felt as if she belonged here with them, whereas she had always been an outsider in her step-family. Home now. Among family. It was a lovely feeling.

Henry joined them for part of the afternoon, but he couldn't spend an entire day in their company without drawing censorious attention to the girls. He was very careful to keep his manner towards the girls, and Danielle in particular, very circumspect.

Danielle was aware that Henry was trying to protect her reputation, but she didn't worry about her reputation as much as the fact they were wasting their last days together.

Several days passed in similar vein. She spent hours and hours with her family, and saw Henry only for an hour or two each day, and always with her family present. She spent more time with the Queen than with Henry.

The first three days, she and Nicole had been swarmed with courtiers who wanted to get to know the masque girls and delve into their mysterious past. After that first few days, their curiosity largely appeased, Danielle and Nicole drew markedly less attention as they wandered about the château, inseparable.

Henry had been impatiently biding his time, hoping his apparent disinterest in the first dew days would allow him greater freedom in the remaining week and a half before Danielle would be leaving.

On the fourth day, he joined them for lunch with the Queen and took Danielle for a walk in the garden afterwards.

"Henry, I was beginning to think we would never have a chance to talk again. I have hardly seen you at all in the last few days," Danielle said, distressed.

"I know, Danielle. I am sorry. I can't be seen with you all of the time. I wish we could be together more. It is so hard to know you are here and not to able to be with you. How do you like your family?"

"They are wonderful. I have learned so much about my mother. My aunt has been absolutely a dream come true. She spent nearly every moment of her life with my mother up until she married the Duc, so she knows the answers to nearly every question I have ever had about my mother. Simple things like her favorite color and the foods she liked and important things like what she liked to read and talk about. What she was passionate about. What things were important to her- everything." Danielle was sparkling and animated as she warmed to her topic, sharing her newfound delights with him. He was completely captivated- all over again.

Henry noticed the curious looks they were drawing with an exasperated sigh. He still had to be careful. They would never have a moment of privacy, it seemed.

The courtiers took note of the Prince and the girl in the green dress. The green dress, yes, that one was the Comtesse Danielle, they knew.

"Leonardo has invited us to spend tomorrow with him. He has several new inventions to try out. Your cousins are invited, as well, of course. We will be away from court for much of the day, if you choose to accept." He smiled down at her, anticipating her reaction.

"Oh, Henry! That sounds wonderful! A whole day away from here? What time do we leave?" she laughed irrepressibly up at him, overflowing with happiness at the chance to spend nearly an entire day together. She knew there wouldn't be many more of these opportunities, and she was determined to enjoy every minute.

"After luncheon." He smiled in return, unable to resist her infectious joy. They walked back towards her aunt and his mother, glowing with happiness. Their mutual glow attracted the interest Henry had been working so very hard to dispel in the last few days.

The next day, directly after luncheon, Danielle and her cousins set off on horseback for the spot by the river where she had met Henry and Leonardo that day all those weeks ago. They would meet Henry and Leonardo there.

When they arrived, Danielle was dismayed to find that the King had come with a dozen of his friends and a contingent of guards. So much for a day away from curious eyes, she thought.

Henry seemed unconcerned with the extra eyes and ran over to meet them when they arrived. "Danielle! At last," he helped her to dismount and took her by the hand over to where there was a lovely waterfall. Leonardo was studying the spiraling water, making detailed drawings, totally fascinated. Most of the crowd was quite a distance away, having been bored watching Leonardo study the swirling water for what seemed like hours.

Leonardo greeted them warmly and shared what he was seeing with them. They watched him for awhile and then Henry and Danielle walked along the riverbank, talking confidentially. They turned around and walked back towards the group before they had gone out of sight. When they returned, however, most of the King's party had left, leaving mostly Danielle's family. Leonardo was showing his sketches of the water and some plants to Nicole.

When Danielle and Henry rejoined the group, Leonardo took out his kite and demonstrated it for everyone, to their amazed delight. While others were taking turns with the kite, he allowed Danielle's cousins to try out his water shoes on the river. It was a fun afternoon for everyone. Relaxed and delighted, they returned in a group to the castle in time for dinner. Nicole had been especially delighted with Leonardo's sketches of plants and flowers. He had shared his sketchbook with her and she had appreciated it as few others could, being an artist herself.

After dinner, Danielle was surprised when the King asked her to take a walk alone with him. She wondered what he could possibly have to say to her alone. He was the King of France, after all. She was a nobody.

They walked along the corridors, the King pointing out here and there various paintings and works or art for her to appreciate. He was a charming man and she soon relaxed perceptibly, as they talked of art, of family and of the afternoon at the river. He was completely charmed by Danielle and he had no trouble imagining why Henry found her irresistible.

To her surprise, he led her outside to the gardens. It was dark outside at this hour, the gardens lit by only the occasional torch. It was a mild night for this late in the fall. There was only a crescent moon, so it provided little additional light. No one else was around at this hour. She began to get nervous as he led her further into the gardens, away from the torches and the windows of the castle. Just where were they going?

"I think maybe I should return to my aunt, Your Majesty. It is getting late and I don't want her to worry where I have disappeared to," she smiled up at him uncertainly.

"She will not worry, Danielle, and neither should you," he smiled down at her, patting her hand, which rested in the crook of his arm. They rounded the corner of a path and she saw two figures in the near distance. One turned and hurried towards them. Henry!

Henry hurried up to them. "Thank you, Father."

"You are quite welcome, Henry. Danielle and I have had a most lovely walk. Now, what exactly, does our friend have planned for us, tonight?" the King asked, releasing Danielle's hand.

Henry took her hand and led her towards the remaining figure. It was Leonardo. He had a table covered with small, round pieces of glass and his ever-present notebook set up to the side.

"Good, good, you are all here, now," Leonardo said, enthusiastically, rubbing his hands together. His enthusiasm was contagious. "What we have here are magnifying lenses. You will see the glass is not flat. These can be used to make items appear larger, in order to examine things in more detail."

The King picked up one of the lenses and examined it, curiously. Henry and Danielle were more interested in each other than in the small pieces of glass scattered on the table. They were holding hands, standing very close together, a short distance away.

The King said, "Wouldn't it be better to have plenty of light to use these, Leonardo?" He suspected his friend had something special planned and that their location and timing was no mere accident. He was always fascinated by Leonardo's presentations and experiments.

"Not for what we are going to be looking at. Tonight we are going to make the moon larger!"

"The moon, itself?" the King said, fascinated.

"Yes, Your Majesty. We will hold two of these lenses, like so, and hold them up towards the moon and gaze through."

The King copied him and was amazed at how much larger and detailed the moon appeared.

Henry and Danielle came over and tried out the lenses, as well, looking at the moon and stars, delighted.

Leonardo was explaining his theory that the ghostly glow of the moon they could see inside the crescent was the moon reflecting the Earth's glow. Light bouncing from the sun to the Earth to the moon. It was fascinating to hear this brilliant mind theorizing about the Heavens and the universe.

They spent several hours with Leonardo, gazing at the stars. Eventually, Danielle's cousin, Antoine, found them there. Despite the King's assurance to Danielle, her aunt had eventually gotten worried when Danielle didn't return from her walk with the King and sent Antoine in search of her. He was relieved to find her innocently occupied, stargazing with the three men and not alone, somewhere, with the Prince.

"Danielle, there you are. My mother has been looking for you."

"Oh, hello, Antoine," she smiled in greeting. "You must try these lenses, to look at the moon. They are simply amazing!" She handed him two lenses and showed him how to use them.

He felt awkward; joining this intimate little group of stargazers without an invitation from the King, but the King was in animated discussion with Leonardo and seemed oblivious to his arrival. He tried out the lenses and was as amazed as the others at what he saw.

The King accepted his arrival without question and included him in the conversations from then on.

Eventually, they packed up the lenses and headed back towards the castle, together. It was quite late and most of the courtiers had already retired for the night by their return.

Henry told Danielle and her cousin to meet him in the courtyard after breakfast tomorrow. He bid Danielle goodnight and reluctantly allowed her cousin to escort her to her room.

"Danielle, you really ought not to have disappeared like that, tonight. We were growing quite concerned." Antoine gently admonished her.

"I'm sorry, Cousin. The King asked me to go for a walk. I had no idea we would be gone for so long, nor that Henry would be there. I did tell the King at one point that I thought I should return, that my aunt would be worried, but he told me not to worry. That she wouldn't be concerned," she smiled up at him earnestly and he found he couldn't remain irritated with her.

"I understand. It is all right." He patted her hand. "Tomorrow, after you have broken your fast, go to my mother's room and come down to the courtyard -together with Nicole and my mother- to meet the Prince. I will meet you there." He was going to have to keep a much closer eye on her until they left, he realized.

Nicole came to Danielle's apartment just after she had breakfasted. "Good morning, Danielle. And, where did you disappear to last night? Surely, the King was not taking you off to a secret assignation with the Prince? Where did you go?" she plopped down on the bed, awaiting an answer.

Danielle laughed at her cousin's wild imagination. Secret assignation, indeed. "The King took me to see his art collection and then out to the gardens where we looked at the stars with Leonardo, if you must know."

"Really?" Nicole looked decidedly skeptical.

"Oh, yes, really," Danielle laughed. Nicole raised an eyebrow and Danielle laughed again. "Oh, yes. Henry was there, as well- but it was not an assignation! We were not alone and I didn't even know where we were going."

"Was stargazing with the Prince very romantic?" Nicole sighed.

"As romantic as it could be with his father and Leonardo standing within arms reach of us, silly." Yes, it had been quite romantic, Danielle reflected. Leaning back against Henry's chest while he held the lenses for her to look through, gazing at the heavens. Yes, quite romantic. She sighed.

Soon they were dressed, in yet another set of coordinating blue and green gowns, and heading for the courtyard with the Duchess.

There they found the Prince and Nicole's three brothers, waiting.

"Well ladies, what a wonderful day for a ride. Will you join us?" Henry asked politely.

Danielle looked down at her beautiful new gown and then at the horses which, she was dismayed to see, were saddled with sidesaddles. She had never learned to ride sidesaddle.

Henry immediately sensed her unease. "I am assured, Comtesse, that riding sidesaddle is just like sitting in a chair," he smiled at her.

Danielle raised an eyebrow at him, "Oh, really? Would you care to demonstrate, Sire?" she asked sweetly.

The Prince burst out laughing, "Oh, you would like that, I am sure. Let us allow Lady Nicole to demonstrate, shall we?" He helped Nicole to mount. The Duc assisted his mother. Henry returned to Danielle, "Ready?"

"Yes," she said with a resigned sigh.

"I promise this outing will be worth the risk, all right?" she nodded, and then Henry put his hands around her waist and lifted her into the saddle. She had watched how Nicole sat and arranged her skirts, and after a brief adjustment she, too, was seated correctly.

They were soon off, out of the castle courtyard and on the way. They were, as always, accompanied by the Prince's personal guard, but Danielle felt free for the first time in weeks. After a few minutes Danielle had grown accustomed to the new sidesaddle. "This sidesaddle really isn't difficult, although I would be afraid if we were travelling at more than a walk that she would leave me behind," she said to Henry, who was at her side.

"I thought you might like to go visit your father's house and the servants today," Henry said with an indulgent smile.

"Oh, yes! That would be wonderful, Henry. Thank you."

A short while later they rode up to the Manor de Barbarac. The three elderly servants were waiting out front. They had obviously been told to expect visitors today.

The servants had not seen Danielle since she left for the masque, weeks before. Henry helped Danielle dismount and she immediately ran into the arms of the old servants who had been her only family for the past ten years. They were all crying and exclaiming over how 'wonderful' and 'elegant' she looked.

When the initial buoyant greeting was over, Danielle turned to introduce them to the Prince and her family. "Your Highness, may I present Maurice? You will remember him from the day we met. The Baroness had sold him to pay her taxes. These are Louise and Paulette." She then introduced them to her newly found family. They were in tears when they saw Danielle and Nicole together. They had always prayed that her mother's family would come and get her someday. Danielle didn't care about the impropriety of introducing her servants to the Crown Prince of France, a duc and a duchess and, fortunately, neither did they.

Danielle invited everyone inside and gave them a tour. They all enjoyed watching Danielle show off her childhood home with such enthusiasm. The Prince decided they needed to hire a steward to take over the management of the manor and unburden the elderly servants.

After the tour, the Duc spoke to Danielle alone, "Cousin, I can see how much you love your home." Danielle smiled at him as he continued, "It belongs to you, and you may wish to move back here someday, after you are married. I do hope you realize that we would really love it if you made your home with us. We are your family, even though we have only recently reconnected. We have so much lost time to make up for."

Danielle turned away, looking around the manor. There were so many memories here. Good and bad.

Seeing her indecision, he continued, "We can hire a steward and additional servants to see to the restoration and maintenance of the manor while you are away. Your other estate, the Château de Lancret, is near to Château de Dieppe. Your mother and mine grew up there. Your grandmother still lives there."

She turned quickly back to him, "My grandmother is alive? The Comtesse de Lancret?"

"Yes, she lives at your château. It is several hours ride from my seat. It is a profitable estate. We will be able to fund any improvements you want to make here with the money diverted from there. What would you like to do about your elderly servants? I assume they have family here?"

"Thank you, Cousin," Danielle whispered, touched that he was considering what would happen to her servants and the manor while she would be away.

"Please, call me Antoine."

"Thank you, Antoine. I do love Manor de Barbarac. I have so many memories here." She walked around the room, touching things as she went. "I will be sad to leave it, but my memories are in my heart, too… I think I need to choose the love and friendship of my family over these bricks and ghosts of the past..." she sighed, making her decision. "It is time for me to find a new life. I would be honoured to come and live with the family, Antoine."

"I am glad you feel that way, Danielle. You will have everything you need at Château de Dieppe, but please make a list of anything you wish to bring with you. I will send some of my servants over to retrieve anything you wish next week."

"Thank you, I will think about what I will bring. I do know I will want all my father's books."

"Of course, anything you wish."

"It will be hardest to leave Maurice, Paulette and Louise. They have been like my family for so long. They do have children here, so I would never ask them to leave. I would like to make sure they want for nothing. They could stay on here, if they like, or maybe we could get them a cottage, if they preferred. I really am not sure. We should ask them. Could my friend Gustave live here? His apprenticeship is nearly over."

"Certainly, it is your house. We can arrange for him to live here and we will ask the servants what they would like. May I tell the family that you will be coming to live with us?"

"Yes, you may tell them." They walked outside to join the others. Danielle saw Henry standing a distance away, gazing off into the trees. She went over to him. "What are you thinking about?"

He continued to stare into the trees and she realized he was looking towards the orchard. "I was thinking about apples," he said lightly. "I never realized one well thrown apple could unseat a rider," he smiled down at her. The sun was shining through the trees, lighting up her auburn hair like a flame, he noticed. The deep green of her gown made her seem one with the trees.

She thought back to that fateful day in the orchard when Henry had borrowed her father's horse. "I was surprised, too," she admitted with a smile.

"Did you and the Duc have a good talk?" he asked, deliberately casual.

Danielle took a deep breath. "Yes. He asked me to come live with his family."

Henry was hoping she had agreed. He would much prefer to think of her safe within her family's care than alone with her elderly servants in this shabby manor. If she stayed here alone, she would be vulnerable to any fortune hunting libertine who came along. He turned towards her. "What have you decided?"

"I have accepted his offer. I really feel warmly welcomed into the family, Henry. I think I will fare better with them around me. Especially Nicole, for we are so alike. I don't mean how we look, either. We like the same things and we always seem to understand each other perfectly. I have never had such a friend before."

"I am glad to hear you will be living with your family. They will take good care of you and ensure you do not shut yourself away from the world. I'll arrange for a steward to take over the running of the manor and see to your servants for you."

"Thank you, but Antoine said he would see to all of that. He said I have another estate that will be able to finance any work needed here."

Henry was glad to hear that the Duc was taking responsibility for all of Danielle's needs, but he felt a distance growing between them. It was a necessary distance for them both to be able to survive and move on, but it hurt nonetheless. "That is good. I like the Duc. He will look out for you, I think." He took her hands in his, saying seriously, "Danielle, I want you to marry someday. You will make some fortunate man an amazing wife and you will be a wonderful mother." She wasn't prepared for such a serious topic and her eyes immediately filled with tears. "Promise me you will be open to love again, someday."

"I shall try," she whispered.

He leaned his forehead into hers. "I told the Duc that it was to be your choice. He can introduce you to men and make recommendations, but the choice will be yours."

The tears trickled from her eyes and turned into a flow and her shoulders started to shake as she tried not to break down. As Henry gathered her into his arms, she broke down into heartrending sobs. "I'm sorry Danielle! I didn't mean to make you cry," he held her until she quieted.

When she had calmed he continued, "I didn't mean to upset you, but we need to talk about these things. I'm almost done, all right?" She nodded against his chest, taking comfort from him holding her. "When you have chosen someone, you and he will need to come to me for approval."

She shoved out of his arms at that. "Your approval?" she yelled at him, suddenly near hysterics. "Why should I come to you?" She couldn't imagine choosing someone else, but if she did she certainly wouldn't want to see Henry with him: comparing them side by side. Knowing she was forced to settle for someone other than Henry. Settle for something less than love. She would be better off if she never saw him again, she realized, dying a little inside.

He was taken aback at her angry outburst. "Danielle, it is the law that the marriage of a titled noblewoman must be sanctioned by the Crown. I must ensure that any choice you make is of your own free will and not made under the slightest pressure. The only way to ensure that is to require you both to come to court to see me. Be he farmer or nobleman, the choice will be yours, as long as it is freely made. I want you to find someone you can love."

She stared at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. "If I chose someone else to love, Henry, it would only be make-believe. In my heart it will be you, always." She couldn't imagine feeling enough affection for anyone else, ever, to make her want to marry. Then she simply turned, running away. This was too much. She needed some privacy to get herself under control.

Henry watched her run away from him, again, resisting the urge to follow. He felt like an a thoughtless bastard for forcing the talk on Danielle when she wasn't ready for it, but time was short before she would be gone from his life and he married to another. He turned and went back to the others. Perhaps it was better if she were angry with him. Maybe the anger would help her to let go.

Everyone was talking, pretending not to have noticed the tearful, angry exchange. The Duc spoke to the Prince. "Your Highness, my mother is tired. Would you mind escorting her back to Hautefort while I wait for my cousin?"

Henry was grateful to the Duc for giving him cause to leave. Danielle probably would be relieved not to see him when she calmed down. He left for Hautefort with the Duchess, Nicole and half of his guards. The Duc, Philippe and André waited to accompany Danielle.

When only half of the Prince's riding party returned it was noticed with great interest by the courtiers that he was accompanied only by Lady Nicole. The blue dress, yes, where was the green dress they wondered?

Danielle sat down in the orchard and cried. Gustave found her there.


She looked up, wiping away her tears. "Hello, Gustave."

"What did he do this time?" he asked, sitting down next to her.

"What are you talking about?"

"Prince High and Mighty, he always makes you cry."

"Not always, Gustave. He was merely trying to make sure I would be cared for."

"How can you defend him, Danielle? After the way he treated you?"

"What are you talking about? He has never treated me badly."

"Never treated you badly? What about the masque? He rejected you because you were a servant, after he had told you he loved you."

"Gustave, it was not his fault. He was about to introduce me to his parents as his fiancée and he didn't even know my real name! I was unmasked at the masque. He learned my real name in front of the entire court. I never told him. He thought I was deceiving him deliberately. He was understandably furious with me. He was totally honest with me, while it was I who deceived. He felt betrayed. It was my lies, not my station, to which he objected. He was the wronged party, not I. I should have told him the truth long before the masque."

"You are too good for him," Gustave insisted, loyally.

Danielle was both disappointed and relieved that Henry had ridden on ahead. She wasn't sure she could have kept her composure, otherwise.

When Danielle returned to her room she was surprised to see Jacqueline anxiously awaiting her. "Hello, Jacqueline. How are you?" she said.

"Oh Danielle, I am so happy to see you. I have been bursting to share the news, but I wanted to tell you first."

Danielle had a suspicion of what this news would be. "Well, shall we go inside then?" she said as they entered her apartment. Danielle noticed a large bouquet of flowers and a small package on the table across the room, but decided to investigate them later. She turned to Jacqueline with a smile, "Well? What is it?"

"Capt. Laurent has asked me to marry him!" she squealed in delight.

Danielle hugged her, "Oh, that is wonderful, Jacqueline! I am so happy for you. I knew that he liked you. It is in his eyes every time he looks at you."

"Thank you, Danielle. After Mother was arrested, I thought that no one would ever want to take the risk of being connected with the family of de Ghent. I have to thank you for your kindness to Marguerite and me. If it hadn't been for your support, I fear we may have been ostracized."

"You do not need to thank me. You have always been kind to me and I would never want you to be punished merely because of who your mother is. When will you be getting married?"

"A week from Thursday. Since the court will be moving to Paris soon, he said we should marry before the move." The move was scheduled for right after the Prince's marriage they both knew, but were careful to leave unmentioned.

"I am leaving Friday of next week," Danielle said.

"Would you be one of my wedding attendants?"

"You know I will, Jacqueline," she smiled at her step-sister, thankful she would be here to see Jacqueline get married before she left.

"Thank you. I must go and find Marguerite. Won't she be shocked that her little sister will be wed before she is?" and with that she left Danielle alone.

The Queen had heard of Henry's quarrel with Danielle, for indeed there were already rumors circulating about the court. She decided to have a private dinner with Danielle to see what she could learn. Danielle was grateful to get the Queen's invitation. She didn't feel like being on display tonight. When she arrived there were servants and the Queen's ladies about, so they talked of Jacqueline's marriage plans. Danielle had spoken to her aunt, who had assured Danielle that she was, indeed, very wealthy and could easily afford to pay for her step-sister's wedding. They talked of gowns and Danielle had playfully rebuked the Queen for her extravagance in furnishing her with the wardrobe of a princess. By this time the servants had withdrawn and they were alone.

"My dear, I so wish you were going to be Henry's Princess," she said kindly.

Danielle had recovered her control from earlier in the day. Strange how she could stay more in control of her emotions when Henry wasn't around, she thought. "Yes, well, we know that isn't going to happen."

"What happened on your outing?"

Danielle knew she was referring to the quarrel with Henry. She didn't pretend to misunderstand. "I told Henry I was going to go live with my family. Then he told me that I was to choose someone to marry and bring him to Henry for his approval."

The Queen rolled her eyes, "Oh, honestly. Men state things so badly. You took offense at his directing your life, I assume?"

"Yes, I just couldn't bear to hear him telling me to find someone else. I don't want someone else," at this point Danielle got up and went to stare out the window. "I understand why he is doing it, but it still made me angry. Then he ran off back to Hautefort," she waved her hand in the air.

"Perhaps he thought you wanted him to leave?" Marie offered.


"Dear, I know this will be of no comfort now, but being married to the Crown Prince is not always the fairytale girls imagine. Princes and Kings can be horribly arrogant and controlling. It is in their nature. They have tremendous stress and responsibilities to deal with daily. Someone is always seeking a piece of them. They can never give 100% to their wife and children. God and Country must come first with them. You also would have found the restrictions necessary to your freedoms quite stifling, I'm afraid. Security is a serious issue, one reason we worry so every time Henry feels the need to escape. You never would have been able to live at the manor together. Not even when the court was at Hautefort. Everyone wants to know where you are, with whom and what you are doing, and at every moment of every day. It can be quite wearing."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. You are most correct, that brings me no comfort. I know Henry can be quite arrogant, but I would gladly have learned to cope with it all to be with him," she said quietly.

"I know, my dear. When are you travelling?"

"Friday next."

"Will you be travelling straight to Château de Dieppe or stopping at Château de Lancret or Château de LeVey?"

"Antoine said they always spend Christmas at Château de Dieppe, so we will travel to Dieppe."

When Danielle returned to her apartment she again saw the flowers and package on the table. Her maid prepared her for bed, and then she looked at the note with the flowers.

"I'm sorry.


Was all it said. She picked one of the flowers, holding it to her nose, inhaling deeply. She put down the note and unwrapped the package. It was a new copy of Utopia to replace the one Marguerite had destroyed.

Danielle took the note, tucked it into the book and climbed into bed, reading herself to sleep.

The week leading up to Jacqueline's wedding was busy and hectic. Danielle scarcely had a minute to herself between planning for Jacqueline's wedding, readying to put the Manor into the hands of the steward Antoine had hired, and packing for the trip to Dieppe. Most of their luggage had been sent on ahead several days earlier to make its way to the ship in Bordeaux that would take them to Dieppe.

Danielle thought that Jacqueline's wedding was the perfect excuse to provide Jacqueline with a new wardrobe. She only had two gowns that fit and neither one was at all attractive or flattering. She had spoken to the Queen, asking her to recommend a dressmaker who would be able to furnish a trousseau for Jacqueline. The Queen's personal dressmaker had designed Danielle's wardrobe, so Danielle didn't know of any other dressmakers.

Queen Marie arranged for one of the court dressmakers to meet with Danielle and Jacqueline the very next morning. Danielle and Jacqueline invited Nicole and Marguerite to participate. They were meeting with the dressmaker in Danielle's apartment, since it was the largest and gave them plenty of room to look at the bolts of fabric and sample gowns the dressmaker had brought along to determine what best suited Jacqueline. Shortly after they got started they were surprised when the Queen joined them.

"Good afternoon, ladies." the Queen said as she entered.

"Your Majesty," they all answered, curtseying.

"I cannot stay long, I just wanted to see how you girls are doing. Make sure that you find a more flattering style than the gowns Jacqueline's mother chose for her. It would be difficult to do worse." Jacqueline was standing in the bedchamber in her chemise, staring in shock at the Queen. Her old dresses were laid out on the bed. The Queen continued, looking at the dresses on the bed, "These have absolutely no shape or embellishment. And these sleeves!" she shuddered in distaste. "These would make any woman look 2 stone heavier, they are so oversized and the same color as the entire gown." She addressed the dressmaker, "Be sure to make her sleeves more close fitting, with some embellishment and a different color than the gown itself. The gowns themselves should have two fabrics each, unlike this green brocade curtain she has been wearing," she waved towards the bed. She turned to regard Jacqueline with a smile, "I hope you are not offended that I called your gown a curtain, my dear. It is just so terribly unflattering that I was always amazed that your mother allowed you to wear it. Marguerite and your mother always dress so well, that it is unaccountable she would dress you as if you were ten years old, instead of the young lady you are."

Jacqueline was stunned. She nearly laughed. The Queen had called her gown a curtain. "No, Your Majesty. I am not at all offended. It is a shapeless curtain. I am quite unable to account for the honour of your assistance here today. It quite overwhelms me."

"I am happy to help. This chemise must go, as well. The sleeves are much too full. It will not work with the new styles of gowns you will be wearing. The neckline should be lower, as well. You may keep it to sleep in, I suppose."

They were all astounded that the Queen would take time from her busy schedule to give her advice on Jacqueline's wardrobe. Danielle thanked her, "Thank you so much, Your Majesty. It means a great deal that you would take the time to help us with Jacqueline's wardrobe. Your fashion sense is so far superior to ours that your advice is invaluable."

"Thank you, Danielle. There is little I enjoy more than designing gowns for you beautiful young ladies. It makes me feel young again. One last thing. The colors should be rich and vibrant. No pastels. Rich blues, reds, deep pink and even green. Do not despair, Jacqueline. The color your mother chose is a perfectly lovely color for you, it is only the fabrics and styles that were unsuitable. Trust me in this," she said with a smile.

After the Queen left they got back to work designing Jacqueline's new wardrobe. They followed her advice and designed a wardrobe of flattering dresses in a rich color palette, with a vareity of sleeve styles. By dinnertime the dressmaker had one gown ready for Jacqueline to wear. It was a rich blue silk damask with a lighter blue damask front panel and a silver cord accenting the waistline. The light blue sleeve gauntlets were tight fitting, allowing poufs of the chemise to show at the shoulder and elbows. The light blue front panel was delicately embroidered in a floral pattern. Her hair was elaborately braided and curled, making it appear much shorter. When she was completely dressed she came out to the sitting room for the others to see. They were shocked at the difference in her appearance. Who would have guessed that a new dress and hairstyle could account for such a dramatic transformation.

"Oh, Jacqueline, you look beautiful!" Danielle cried, coming forward and giving her a hug.

Marguerite was speechless. This was her awkward little sister?

Danielle lead Jacqueline over to the full length mirror so she could view her transformation herself. Jacqueline looked at her reflection in wonder. Was this elegant woman looking back at her really Marguerite's plain little sister? The change in dress style accentuated her lush, curvy figure and the contrasting sleeves and front panel were very slimming. The colour made her skin glow. She couldn't wait to see Marc's reaction!

Marguerite came forward and gave her sister a hug. "You look stunning, Jacqueline. My little sister is all grown up," she smiled. It was the first compliment she had ever given Jacqueline- and it was sincerely meant.

Nicole also commented on how lovely she looked. The four girls made their way down to the dining hall together, anxious to see what everyone's reaction would be to Jacqueline. The four lovely girls drew many appreciative looks, many of them not even realizing that the beauty in the blue dress was Jacqueline de Ghent.

Danielle and Jacqueline were standing together talking when Danielle saw Henry come into the dining hall with Marc Laurent . Henry saw Danielle and immediately headed in her direction with a smile. He hadn't seen her all day. Jacqueline's back was to them, so she was unaware of their approach. Danielle wondered if Marc even realized she was with Jacqueline, as his eyes were scanning the crowd.

Henry greeted them with a smile, "Ladies."

"Your Highness," they curtseyed.

"Marc, you may go find Jacqueline. You don't need to wait upon me," he smiled, all of his attention on Danielle.

"Thank you, Your Highness." he started to move away, as Jacqueline turned towards him with a smile. He stopped, doing a double take. "Jacqueline?" his eyes widening in appreciation. He was astonished at the change in Jacqueline. "You look lovely. I highly approve of your new gown. I confess, I must have been looking for your green dress," he laughed.

She smiled and blushed at his besotted expression. He had never looked at her in such blatant admiration. "Thank you. I have spent the whole of the afternoon with the dressmaker, Danielle, Marguerite and Nicole."

"It was time well spent. Your gown is very elegant. Did you have fun?" Marc asked.

"Yes, I have never had so much fun buying a new gown."

"I expect it has to do with the company involved," Marc said, knowing he had Danielle to thank for her delight. He took her arm and they moved away as a crowd of courtiers descended on Henry and Danielle. "I don't mind if you let the Comtesse redesign your whole wardrobe, if you are enjoying it, but don't let her change who you are inside. I love you for the sweet, caring, unspoiled woman you are. Who knew that a new dress and hairstyle would transform you into such a ravishingly beautiful courtier?" he smiled at her.

Jacqueline laughed at hearing herself described in such a way, "I think you must be blinded by love, Marc, for, although I have a new, more flattering dress, the rest of me is exactly the same as I have always been."

"I'm so glad to hear that," he smiled into her eyes. Those eyes a man could drown in, he thought.

Danielle and Henry hadn't had a moment alone since their argument at the manor. They were always surrounded by other people. Tonight was no exception. As soon as Marc and Jacqueline had walked away they were enveloped. Antoine made sure that his cousin was well chaperoned at all times. Her disappearance the night of the star gazing had made him acutely aware of how vulnerable she was. Apparently even the King was willing to assist them in having time together.

Early on the morning of Jacqueline's wedding, Henry looked from his window and spotted Danielle walking arm in arm with her aunt in the gardens. They seemed to be sharing a special moment. He saw Danielle turn and embrace her aunt. He was certain it was Danielle, even though he couldn't see her face clearly and she wasn't wearing her hallmark green. He just knew. Then he saw Nicole come bounding up to them, talking excitedly. She took Danielle by the hand and they hurried off. He wondered what they were doing. He knew he would see them later in the morning, at Marc and Jacqueline's wedding.

Jacqueline was a radiant bride as she walked down the aisle. Henry stood at the front of the church next to the bridegroom. Capt. Laurent only had eyes for his Jacqueline. She was escorted by her sister Marguerite and her step-sister, the Comtesse. Henry couldn't tear his eyes off of Danielle, wishing with every fiber of his being that she were walking down the aisle to marry him and not just to escort her sister to marry his friend. Henry and Danielle stood separated by the church aisle and an unseen Spanish fiancée as Jacqueline and Marc Laurent exchanged their vows, promising to love each other forever. Henry and Danielle looked only at each other during the ceremony, feeling at once intimately connected and impossibly divided from one another.

The bride and the groom, now joined, walked back up the aisle together. Next came Henry and Danielle, followed by Marguerite and another of Capt. Laurent's friends. Henry and Danielle walking together drew as many, if not more, romantic sighs and comments from the crowd than the newly married couple.

At the wedding breakfast many toasts were made and drunk to the happy couple. Danielle had invited them to spend the first week of their married life at the manor, away from the court crowds.

Shortly after Capt. and Madame Laurent had left, Danielle noticed that Henry had left the party, too. She wondered, dejectedly, if he were avoiding her. She would be gone by this time tomorrow.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 17 of 35

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