Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 21 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

Danielle awoke the day after the wedding feeling much calmer than she had felt in the week since leaving Hautefort. It was a calm, sunny day. She spent the day, as usual, on deck with her cousins. They danced, sang songs and talked about many interesting topics. Danielle felt as though she belonged to them, a comforting feeling. She had accepted that Henry was now married, so the constant anxiety and panic of the last week had eased, somewhat.

The week passed quickly and one morning when she came up on deck she found her cousin, Antoine, smiling and waiting for her.

"Good morning, Cousin," he said.

"Good morning, Antoine. What has you looking so happy this morning?" she asked with a smile.

"We are almost home. We have made excellent time. We will be anchored by midday," he beamed.

"Truly? I am anxious to see Dieppe after all I have heard," Danielle said.

Nicole came up then, "Oh Danielle, look! We are almost home," she exclaimed.

Danielle went with them to view the coastline that was to be part of her new home. They stood there talking for an hour or so, and then they went below to get ready to go ashore.

When the girls came back up on deck, Nicole pointed to a castle coming into view in the distance. "There it is. Château de Dieppe."

"It is beautiful, Nicole. I didn't realize it was so close to the sea."

"Oh, yes. It is only a short walk to the beach from the castle. Your room overlooks the sea."

"You already picked my room?" Danielle was touched.

"Oh, yes. Mother picked out a room for you several years ago, when we heard your father had died. She was ever hopeful that someday you would want to come live with us."

"Really?" Danielle was surprised yet again. "I wonder how different I might be if I had lived these last ten years here, with my family, instead of with my step-mother?" she mused.

Soon they were being rowed ashore towards the castle. A group of servants met the boats as they arrived.

Danielle and Nicole walked arm in arm up the beach, climbed the stairs that ascended the cliffs and crossed the grassy park up to the castle. The servants they passed were all very curious when they saw Nicole walking arm in arm with her twin. Many of the long time servants knew who she must be. They were familiar with the story of the Duchess' estranged twin sister, the Comtesse.

Danielle was enchanted by the old castle. It had suits of armour of renowned past owners in the great hall, rich tapestries on the walls and lots of interesting nooks everywhere. Nicole showed her up to a room with a big canopied bed hung in blue and green velvet curtains and large windows overlooking the beach and ocean. Blue and green again! Nicole's room was next door. They spent the day settling in and resting.

At dinner, the Duchess announced her intention to have the family attend a ball the next evening. "It will be the perfect opportunity for us to introduce Danielle into local society. That way when we have the Christmas Eve Ball next week she will already know some people."

Danielle was doing well most days. Keeping herself busy wasn't hard with her boisterous family. The nights were the hardest, when she was alone and missing Henry terribly.

The morning of the ball, Nicole had a friend visit in the morning, before Danielle was up. This friend was full of gossip she had, both from local friends and letters from far away friends. She chided Nicole for not writing from the Royal Court. Her friend had heard all about the girl at the masque and even the Prince and Comtesse's tender farewell in the garden. On stage Danielle had been, indeed. Nicole gave her just the basic information she couldn't avoid and sent her on her way with an excuse as soon as she could.

Nicole sought out her mother to discuss the gossip. The Duchess was surprised to hear that the gossip was so complete and had travelled so quickly. They would have to prepare Danielle for a virtual onslaught of people seeking to meet her tonight. The Duchess had been hoping to have Danielle well established before having to deal with any gossip.

The Duchess gave a lot of thought to the best way to introduce Danielle and how to respond to the rumors bound to bombard them. She called upon several friends to get an idea of just how widespread the gossip was.

It seemed that every lady in the kingdom had heard of the masque and the Prince's lost love. The mysterious Comtesse de Lancret was seen as the heartbroken heroine of a real life story of star-crossed lovers. All were in breathless anticipation of meeting the woman who had won the heart of a Prince. Obviously they were going to have to meet this gossip straight on.

She decided the girls should wear their coordinating green and blue ball gowns and pendants to tonight's ball. Let everyone see them as the Queen had wanted them seen together. Let them wonder about who was at the masque. Surely, a touch of mystery could only help them to accept the beautiful Comtesse.

She returned home with her plans fully formed. Now, she had to inform Danielle that she would continue to be under similar scrutiny to what she had experienced at Hautefort. She was thankful that Danielle was a strong-willed, sensible young woman.

Danielle was utterly dismayed to learn she was to be a continued focus of attention. She had believed that with the distance they had travelled from Hautefort she would have gained some measure of anonymity. She hoped the curiosity would be short-lived. Aunt Danielle insisted that the best way to conquer it was to be seen out in company regularly. As people got to know her, rumors would fade. She hoped this was true.

As the girls sat next to each other having their hair braided for the ball they discussed who they were likely to see and meet and what kinds of reactions they would draw. Nicole was already well known as the Duc's little sister, but she was sure to have a new court of admirers with her mysterious connection to the romance of the Prince and the Comtesse.

The Duchess had come to realize what the Queen had known all along: that the slight difference in the girls' eye colour was actually accentuated by the choice of green and blue for their attire. People assumed Danielle's eyes were green and Nicole's blue; in reality they were both a green/blue mixture, taking on the hue of the clothing. People quickly came to differentiate the girls by their attire, just as they had at court. Only the most perceptive could tell them apart without the cues from the clothing.

The ball was well underway when the Duc's party arrived. Word had already spread throughout the area that the Prince's Comtesse was first cousin to the Duc de LeVey and was staying with his family. The guests were on the lookout for the Duc and his family, in expectation of having their curiosity satisfied at last.

The Duc and Duchess entered first, followed by the younger cousins. An anticipatory hush spread over the crowd as they made their way to greet their host and hostess. After the introductions were made, they joined the rest of the guests in the ballroom.

Conversations immediately resumed, centering on observations of Danielle and Nicole, of course. They were surrounded by acquaintances and friends wishing to be introduced to the mysterious comtesse they had heard so many intriguing stories about.

Danielle charmed and enchanted everyone she met, with her friendly manner and easy smile. The young men found her both attractive and approachable. The parents of the young men found her a prized candidate for marriage with her wealth, title and connections.

Ladies of all ages regarded Nicole and Danielle's dresses with envious eyes. The Queen's dressmaker had spared neither effort nor expense crafting their exquisite dresses.

Fortunately, few people were bold enough to ask Danielle direct questions. Most questions were more general or open ended: 'Where had she grown up', 'Did she realize she looked exactly like her cousin?', 'Had she enjoyed her stay at Hautefort?' Danielle had no trouble managing the questions and actually enjoyed herself, much to her surprise.

Nicole, as expected, found herself quite in demand as well. She always enjoyed the excitement of a ball and having an extra layer of intrigue on top was like icing on the cake. She handled all questions about her cousin and the Prince with aplomb.

It was quite late when they returned to Château de Dieppe, but all were satisfied that Danielle had been well launched. They retired to bed soon upon their return. They were expecting to receive a flood of callers in the next few days.

Henry was impatient and restless as his ship sailed northward. To know that she was travelling away from him and he wasn't getting any closer to her for the first week was frustrating. They were making excellent time, and as they rounded the northwest corner of France, his anticipation of his reunion with Danielle grew. He imagined it dozens of different ways: her seeing his ship from the castle and running to meet him, her walking in a winter garden and him sneaking up to surprise her, her in the great hall, at dinner with her family, or at a ball. He was longing to take her in his arms and tell her they could finally be together. He wanted to see her face, smell her hair, and hear her laughter. Dry her tears for the last time. He would be in Dieppe for Christmas; and what a wonderful Christmas it would be.

The week after the ball was full of visits to and from local friends. Outings with groups of young people to go shopping, riding or sailing kept them busy. Danielle and Nicole were more popular than ever and no one doubted that the Prince of France had fallen in love with the most enchanting Comtesse. The Duc was certain he would be fielding offers for her hand soon, and often. He was equally certain that she was not nearly ready to move on.

Rumors of a Wedding

The day before the Christmas Eve ball the Duchess was hosting a group of ladies for tea. The subject she had most dread finally arose that morning. News of the Prince's marriage had reached Dieppe. It was the first topic brought up after the tea was served. It was the only topic. Not surprising, since everyone would want to witness the Comtesse's reaction to the news.

A lady with a daughter Danielle's age said to the group, "Have you heard the news? Prince Henry has married Princess Gabriella of Spain, at long last."

Danielle had known this news would be coming any day, so she was able to smile with apparent composure and say, "Really, do tell us."

The Duchess was impressed with how Danielle handled the news.

"Why, yes, just two weeks ago. It was the most shocking spectacle, I heard," she said, pausing for dramatic effect.

Another lady pleaded, "Oh, do tell us details!"

Danielle braced herself for whatever this woman deemed a 'shocking spectacle,' and hoped it hadn't truly been too awful. It was hard enough just hearing that he was actually married. She reminded herself to breathe. Just breathe.

"Well, the bride, Princess Gabriella, cried and sobbed the whole way down the aisle," Danielle went white, what a tragic, horrible beginning to a marriage. How humiliating for Henry to have such an obviously unwilling bride. Her heart broke for him. "When they knelt before the altar she was crying so hard she was gasping for breath!" She thought she had everyone's undivided attention, but in reality most people were surreptitiously watching Danielle's face; her strained, white face. She continued dramatically, "Then the Prince laughed at her!"

Danielle blurted out, "He didn't! He wouldn't!" horrified. He wasn't some insensitive brute, who would laugh at his crying bride. He wasn't! She felt as if she couldn't breathe. Nicole laid her hand on Danielle's knee.

The lady continued, "Oh, indeed he did, Comtesse. After all, who could consider marrying a handsome, charming Prince, the heir to the French throne, as something to cry about, after all? Really, she must be the most pathetic creature. The Princess then fled from the altar into the arms of her lover in the crowd. The King of Spain dragged her back to the altar, to finish the ceremony."

It was much worse than Danielle could ever have possibly imagined. She was physically ill. She managed to say, "Princess Gabriella is now the Dauphine. You should show her some respect!" before she dropped her teacup, covering her mouth, stood and then ran from the room. She couldn't bear the painful images flashing before her eyes: Henry at the altar, a bride crying hysterically, Henry laughing, a King dragging his daughter to the altar, Henry kissing a crying bride. She ran out of the castle, across the grassy park and down the steps to the beach. Blinded by her tears, she tripped and fell. She picked herself up and ran down the beach, inconsolable with grief. She wanted Henry to be happy, but it now seemed certain that his marriage was going to be a nightmare. How could they ever recover from such an inauspicious beginning?

Nicole followed her outside to see where she was going. She ran to the edge of the grassy area and watched until Danielle threw herself down on the beach, dissolving into tears. Her brothers, who had been fencing on the grassy park, had seen Danielle run by and asked Nicole what had happened; wondering if they should go after her. Nicole relayed the news about the wedding and told her brothers Danielle needed some time alone. Nicole sat on the terrace, working on her embroidery and watching Danielle sitting on the beach below, as her brothers resumed their practice.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 21 of 35

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