Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 23 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

Christmas Eve day dawned clear and cold along the northern coast of France. The family in Château de Dieppe slept late, in anticipation of the late night Christmas festivities to come. As final preparations for the ball were completed, they enjoyed a quiet, family afternoon. They were grateful that courtesy prevented any callers from visiting on the day of a ball.

No one called at the castle that day, but word was spreading quickly that the Prince was not married. He had apparently brought the Archbishop with him on his visit to the Château de Dieppe. Speculation of what it all meant assured that everyone who had been fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the annual Christmas Eve Ball would be in attendance.

They were in breathless anticipation of seeing the Prince and the Comtesse together. Many had already been charmed by Danielle in the previous week, so they felt a keen interest in her future. Stories of Danielle's horrified reaction to the wedding rumors were also speculated upon. Had she known the Prince wasn't married? It didn't seem so. She had been genuinely distraught.

The ball would begin with the family greeting guests, followed by dancing. Protocol demanded that the Prince arrive subsequent to the rest of the guests, so Henry had to bide his time until he could announce to the world his betrothal to Danielle.

Henry paced back and forth, impatiently, willing the time to pass faster. Never had he been so eager to attend a ball! It seemed as though most of the guests had arrived simultaneously, not wanting to miss a moment of the possibly historic events. Once he had noted a cessation in the arrival of carriages, he prepared to join the party.

The Duchess had decided to dress the girls in the one pair of dresses that were completely identical. They were made of an iridescent blue-green taffeta with an overskirt heavily embroidered in silver threads. The Queen's dressmaker had outdone herself this time. The sleeves were full at the top, tight fitting on the forearms, slashed to show the chemise beneath and trimmed in silver. Jeweled silver belts adorned the waistlines. Their hair was elaborately braided in a coronet on top, accented with jewels, and curled down the back. They wore no other jewelry this time. They looked beautiful and enchanting and absolutely no one, other than their family, could tell them apart.

This heightened the excitement brewing over the Prince's expected arrival. It was rumored, they remembered, that the girls had played a game of switching identities on him at a masque, back in October, and that he had been furious with them. Why, they wondered, would the Comtesse and Lady Nicole dare to dress alike tonight? To provoke the Prince?

Midway through the evening, a trumpet fanfare announced the arrival of the Prince. The crowd parted, bowing and curtsying to him as he passed. When he came upon the Duc, they greeted each other warmly, and then he greeted the Duchess. As he turned to greet Danielle and Nicole a hush fell over the assembled guests and one would have heard a feather drop.

The girls curtseyed together, "Your Highness," they chorused.

Henry's eyes widened a moment in surprise, and then he roared with laughter. "Oh no, this will not do at all, ladies. Did you lose your pendants?" he smiled charmingly. "You shan't deprive us all of a method to tell you apart!" he chuckled. He reached unerringly for Danielle's hand, taking it and placing it on his arm, his actions belying his words. "Please excuse us for a moment, the Comtesse and I have something to discuss," he said as he led her from the room.

The crowd erupted into a cacophony of voices when they left. People began surrounding Nicole when the Duc signaled for their attention.

"Friends, thank you all for joining us to celebrate the birth of our Savior this Christmas Eve. As I think most of you already know, Prince Henry is not married, as previous reports had indicated," a murmur went through the crowd at this confirmation.

Henry had pulled Danielle into a small anteroom off of the ballroom. "What kind of a silly trick was that, Danielle? Did you have any doubt that I would be able to tell you apart?" he said as he pulled her to him for a quick kiss.

"It was my aunt's idea, Henry. I think she just wanted people to remember that you called me 'Nicole' at the masque; or maybe she just wanted to be sure you could tell us apart. She told me once that she and my mother would only consider the offer of a man who could tell them apart. Their marriages were arranged, or at least my aunt's was, but they insisted on that."

"Well, I have a present for you," he said as he picked up a box from a nearby table.

"I don't have anything for you," she said like a little child.

"You are my present. Come now, open this," he handed her the heavy box.

She put it on the table, untied the bow and opened the box. Inside was a necklace of emeralds and diamonds. "Oh Henry, it is the most magnificent necklace I have ever seen. Thank you." She kissed him quickly.

"Here, allow me," he said as he fastened it around her neck. "Merry Christmas," he said, kissing her exposed neck, making her laugh and blush. He took her hand and led her back into the ballroom just as the Duc finished announcing that the Prince remained unmarried. Henry led Danielle up onto the dais next to her cousin. Danielle was trembling slightly, remembering the calamity of the masque. Henry smiled adoringly at her, squeezing her hand.

At a nod from the Prince, the Duc continued, "My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, The King has given me the great honour of sharing with you, on this festive occasion, a most joyous announcement. The King, himself, is making the same announcement in Paris, tonight. I am honoured to announce the engagement of Prince Henry, Dauphin of France, to my lovely cousin, Danielle, the Comtesse de Lancret."

The Duc called the Archbishop over to bless the betrothal. As Henry placed a ring with a large emerald, surrounded by diamonds, on Danielle's hand, she gasped in delight. The Prince and the Duc then signed the betrothal documents. It was official. They were betrothed.

Danielle felt as if floating on a cloud the entire evening. "If I am dreaming, please do not wake me, Your Highness," she teased at one point.

Shortly before midnight, the ball was interrupted for everyone to attend the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass.

As they were putting on their cloaks, preparing for the short walk to the church, Henry pulled Danielle aside. "I have a gift for you, from my mother."

"Another gift?" she laughed. "Why not save it for after mass?"

Henry had turned around to get something from one of his servants. "Well, because it is very cold tonight and I think you will enjoy this now," he said as he draped a magnificent hooded cloak around her shoulders. It was of emerald green velvet, fully lined and trimmed in ermine. Danielle had never seen ermine before, but she had heard of the luxurious white fur with its distinctive black spots: the fur traditionally reserved for royalty. A matching ermine muff completed the look.

"Oh, Henry, it is amazing," she said with tears in her eyes.

"My mother had this made for you and put on the ship, hoping I would be able to give it to you for Christmas. She ordered it before you left Hautefort."

He took her arm, leading her out to where the others were waiting. There was no doubting which of the girls the Prince's fiancée was now, with her emeralds and ermine on display. She looked every inch a Princess.

When they returned from mass, the traditional Christmas feast awaited them. The festivities would go on until the wee hours of Christmas morning.

Of course, no one could leave the party while the Prince was still in attendance, and since he and Danielle were having a marvelous time, he stayed quite late. After he and Danielle finally left the party, many others quickly took their leave. It would be a quiet Christmas Day in Dieppe, with most of the nobles sleeping the day away.

When Henry got up at midday, he found that most of the family was still abed. He did find Nicole sitting in the library, reading. "Good morning, Nicole."

"Good morning, Your Highness," she stood up and curtseyed.

"I think we can be informal when it is only family, Nicole. You must call me 'Henry,' and please feel free to sit down," he smiled charmingly.

"Thank you, Your –Henry," she blushed.

"Is Danielle up, yet?" he wondered.

"Yes, she went out for a walk. She invited me to go, but it is too cold for me, today, with the wind blowing off the water. I think she hopes for snow."

"Thank you, Nicole." Shaking his head, he smiled, wondering why he hadn't checked outside, first. Donning his cloak, he went outside in search of his betrothed. He found her, minutes later, walking along the cliffs; her green, woolen cloak wrapped tightly around her. "Good morning," he said brightly from behind her.

She spun around, a radiant smile on her face. "Good morning or perhaps I should say 'good day,' for surely 'tis past midday," she said teasingly. She was so ecstatically happy she felt as if she could fly, and it radiated from her whole being.

"Perhaps, or we could simply say 'Merry Christmas' and not worry over the hour at all," he smiled. "Are you warm enough? You look cold. Your nose is red," he said, enfolding her in his arms, absorbing some of that radiance.

"I am fine," she said, snuggling against him.

"We will be leaving for Paris in a week. Have you thought about what you would like to do before then? Antoine tells me that you haven't yet been to visit the Château de Lancret or your grandmother."

"I know. I am so conflicted. I do want to see where my mother and Aunt Danielle grew up, but my grandmother is responsible for their estrangement. My Aunt Danielle still doesn't speak to her and I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt my aunt."

"Antoine said that your aunt doesn't speak to her, but neither has she prevented your cousins from having a relationship with her. He has offered to ride over with us tomorrow, if you like."

She sighed, "Very well, with you there I shan't be as afraid to meet her. She didn't approve of my parents marriage, but I imagine she will be in transports over ours. Not that I care what she thinks," she added stubbornly.

"Good, 'tis settled, then. Now may we go inside and warm up?"

"If we must, but if it snows I am coming back outside," she warned.

Rodmilla's Christmas

The Servants from the court's laundry had had Christmas Day off, to spend with their families. Rodmilla de Ghent had therefore spent the day alone in her cell. Since the other laundry servants were discouraged from talking with her, she had little idea of what was happening beyond her cell or the laundry room. She had heard that Danielle had left court with her mother's family and that the Prince was marrying the Spanish Princess. 'Serves Danielle right for crossing me,' she thought. She spent endless hours dreaming and plotting revenge against Danielle for spoiling everything. She rarely gave a thought to what had become of Marguerite or Jacqueline, so great was her preoccupation with Danielle. 'Live like a Comtesse, will she? I will find a way to put a spoke in her wheel, even if it takes me ten years.'

Château de Lancret

The next morning they set out early for Château de Lancret. It was normally about a two hour ride from Dieppe. The small party, accompanied by a dozen royal guards and a few servants, drew a lot of attention as they rode through a series of small towns on their way. The Royal procession had to stop in every town to greet officials, so what normally took two hours took five. Henry enjoyed showing off Danielle as his and had insisted she wear her new, ermine trimmed cloak on the trip. Danielle thought it a bit ostentatious for a ride in the country, but didn't object. What did she know of royal fashion, after all? And, it was wonderfully warm and soft. The peasants in the towns were quite impressed by their presence and appearance. It wasn't often they got to see a royal procession, of any type.

Along the way Nicole mentioned to Danielle, "I wonder what Grand'Mere will make of us? Will she be surprised, do you think?"

"I have no idea, since we have never met. Surely she must suspect some resemblance, given that our mothers were twins," Danielle returned.

Antoine dropped back next to the girls at this point. "Danielle, once, when I was about fourteen, Grand'Mere took me with her to visit the court at Hautefort."

"Really? You never mentioned that, before."

Henry now dropped back so that the four were riding abreast. "I think I met you then, Antoine."

"Yes, Your Highness, we did meet that summer. I also met you that summer, Danielle."

Danielle was shocked. "We met? How long ago? Why didn't you tell me before?"

"Mother doesn't know. Grand'Mere made me promise never to tell her. You were about seven or eight. We used to ride by the manor every day. I didn't know why, but one day we saw you playing with a little boy in the lane out front. She told me to ask you for directions to Hautefort, even though we knew the way. You told us how to get there. You were admiring my horse when your father saw us. He came out and sent you into the house. Then he reproached Grand'Mere for contacting you without his permission. He went on to say that you were his and that he wasn't going to allow her any contact with you until you were eighteen.

"She protested that you needed our guidance to be brought up as a proper lady, to be prepared to take your rightful place in society. She called you a wild, little ruffian. He said that he would see that you were ready, when the time came. He told us to leave and not come back. I remember being struck with how like Nicole you looked."

"I think I remember the day, although 'tis a little hazy. What did she do then?"

"We returned to Hautefort and she made me promise to never tell anyone about it. We left a short time later and never returned."

"That must have been shortly before my father remarried… He might never have married my step-mother, if not for your grandmother's interference. He told me he married her, in part, to help me learn to be a proper lady," Danielle said, stricken at the thought of the likely chain of events.

Henry reached out to touch her arm. "Danielle, it was a long time ago and it sounds as if she was concerned about you, growing up without a mother. She could have had no idea he would marry your step-mother and die shortly thereafter, leaving you in such dire circumstances. She travelled across the country, hoping to see you. Obviously, your father had denied her."

"I suppose. I just feel as if my life is a book that has these missing chapters I am only now discovering. It is so very strange," she blinked back the tears threatening to spill over.

The Duc interrupted. "We did not find out about your father's death until a few years ago. By that time, your step-mother convinced my father that you were settled and happy with her and didn't want anything to do with us. If we had found out when it happened, I'm sure my father would have insisted you come to live with us." They rode along in silence for a few minutes. "We will be able to see your château across the valley in a minute. It should look lovely with the morning sun shining upon it."

Danielle began to get truly excited about seeing her mother's home for the first time.

As they cleared a stand of trees, Nicole said, "Look, up ahead. There it is."

Henry and Danielle stopped to look at the breathtaking white castle across the valley from them. "It looks like something out of a fairytale," Danielle breathed. Château de Lancret was a large castle made from a white stone, surrounded by a crenellated curtain wall, studded with towers and turrets. The roofs were blue tiles. It had a long, winding approach and dominated the landscape for miles.

Even Henry, who had grown up at various royal palaces and castles, was impressed. "It is beautiful, Danielle. It looks like the Louvre did before my father tore down the old castle to make room for the modern palace. As it looked when I was a little boy, except this setting is much more idyllic than Paris. Remember, it actually belongs to you, Comtesse de Lancret. Your grandmother lives there because you have never taken ownership or objected."

They rode down into the valley and up across the other side. The castle guards watched them approach with interest, alerting the chamberlain. The aged Comtesse rarely entertained visitors anymore, and they had not been notified to expect anyone.

The Duc spoke to them when they arrived at the gatehouse, telling the guards that he was accompanied by Prince Henry and his cousin, the current Comtesse.

The drawbridge was customarily left down, and they were allowed into the castle's bailey. They rode up to the entrance and dismounted. The Chamberlain appeared at the door, slightly flustered at the unexpected arrivals.

"Your Grace, Lady Nicole, I'm sorry for not greeting you properly. The Comtesse did not notify us to expect your arrival." He glanced nervously at the Prince and Danielle. "Your Highness! My Lady," he bowed low as he saw Henry's standards.

"Fontaine, Grand'Mere wasn't expecting us. This, of course, is Prince Henry, and this is his betrothed, our cousin Danielle, the current Comtesse de Lancret."

"Your Highness, My Lady, Welcome to Château de Lancret. Please come in and make yourselves at home. I will tell the Comtesse you are here."

"Fontaine, just tell her that I am here with Nicole. I will explain the rest," the Duc instructed.

"Yes, Your Grace," he said as he bowed them into the castle's great hall.

Danielle looked around the great hall, mesmerized. The castle was richly decorated and elegantly furnished, with artwork and tapestries everywhere. Obviously some previous occupant had been an art lover and collector. She wandered around, touching everything in awe, trying to imagine her mother growing up in such a fabulous place. Château de Lancret was at least twice the size of Château d'Hautefort.

She heard a rustle of fabric behind her and heard a brusque voice say, "Nicole, please do not touch the statue." She turned to see an older woman, of perhaps sixty, looking at her sternly.

"Madame," Danielle said by way of greeting, nodding her head.

"Did your brother buy you that ridiculously ostentatious cloak? It is much too sophisticated for a young, unmarried lady," she said bluntly. "Take it off."

Danielle stole a glance at the others, standing mutely by the doorway, unseen. She obediently removed the cloak, handing it to a servant who materialized at her side. "No, Madame. It was a gift from the Queen." Danielle was quite amused by the old woman's bluster.

"What?" she exclaimed. "Why would the Queen give you such a gift?"

The three by the doorway finally dissolved into laughter at the unladylike outburst. She looked over and spied them. "What kind of game is this Antoine? What is she talking about? Who are they?" she indicated Nicole and Henry who were slightly obscured by shadow.

The Duc indicated Nicole, "This is my sister, Nicole."

The old lady turned back to Danielle. "If she is Nicole, then you are…?" she asked shakily.

"I am Danielle de Barbarac," Danielle said, watching her reaction closely, unsure how she felt about this woman…her grandmother.

Her grandmother paled and her eyes brimmed with tears. "Danielle?" she said on a choked whisper, coming forward and enveloping Danielle in a crushing embrace. "I never thought I would see you again." She started sobbing softly. Danielle was overcome by her emotion and hugged her back.

Antoine spoke up. "Grand'Mere, why don't we go into the salon and sit down?" He had never before seen his grandmother break down. She was normally a formidable figure.

The old Comtesse took Danielle by the hand and led the way. She took Danielle to a small couch and sat down with her, never letting go of her hand. "Nicole, please come here. I want to see you two together," as Nicole came up the old Comtesse's eyes filled again with tears. "It is like going back in time twenty years. If only I could redo some of my past decisions."

A few moments later she had regained a measure of her composure and noticed Henry standing next to Antoine. "Who is your friend, Antoine? Aren't you going to introduce him to me?"

"Of course Grand'Mere. I was just waiting until I had your attention. This is Danielle's betrothed-" she cut him off before he could finish.

"Her betrothed? Oh, I expect you wanted to have a look at her château. I have-"

The Duc cut her off, "Grand'Mere, let me tell you-"

She cut him off again, "Do not interrupt me, Antoine," she said as if instructing a schoolboy.

Antoine just shrugged his shoulders at Henry, who smiled his understanding in return. Henry was quite entertained by the entire exchange. His family was much too formal for something like this to have ever occurred with his grandmother.

"Now, as I was saying, I have taken excellent care of the château and all of its treasures for my granddaughter, anticipating her return. Would you like a tour?" She looked briefly at Henry, then back to Danielle.

Danielle was surprised she didn't seem to care who her betrothed was. Hadn't she disapproved of her mother's choice to the point of causing a family rupture? "In a little while, Grand'Mere," Danielle had used the familiar name, without even realizing it. "Would you like to be introduced to my betrothed, before we take the tour?" she asked, walking over to Henry and taking his hand. He smiled tenderly down at her and gave her hand a squeeze.

"Danielle, I can see that you are happy, and that is all I care about. I assume Antoine has already given his approval, since you are here together. I will never forgive myself for cutting contact with your mother. Can you ever bring yourself to forgive me?" she asked timidly.

"Yes, I do forgive you, Grand'Mere," she went over and hugged her grandmother, who broke down into tears. Danielle couldn't imagine holding a grudge against this woman who was so obviously broken up over what she had done. Forgiving her had come surprisingly easy.

A few minutes later, she recovered herself again and realized that Danielle's betrothed must think they were totally without manners or grace. "Well, young man, so you are planning to marry my granddaughter, are you?"

"Yes, Madame, I am," Henry said with his most charming smile, coming forward.

"And, what is your name, young man? Where is your family from?"

"Henry de Valois. My family is from Paris."

Danielle's mouth fell open in shock and she nearly kicked him for his evasive answers. What was he up to? Giving his family name and without his rank. Royals never use their family name. As a matter of fact, his family name would be Capet, she realized. De Valois was merely the house he was descended from, wasn't it?

The Comtesse's eyes narrowed. "Henry de Valois of Paris, did you say?" She looked at Danielle's stunned expression, "Who did you say gave you that cloak?"

"Queen Marie," Danielle said gently.

"Henry de Valois, is it? What kind of game are you children playing on me?" she asked suspiciously. She stood and looked at Henry closely. "My granddaughter is a lady, a Comtesse. If you are here for my approval of a betrothal, then no more games, if you please."

"Your pardon, Comtesse. We did not mean any disrespect. I am Henry, Crown Prince of France and I am betrothed to your granddaughter, Danielle. My mother, the Queen, did make a present of the ermine cloak to Danielle. I gave it to her on my mother's behalf on Christmas Eve, just after we announced the betrothal."

She sat, stunned for a moment, letting it sink in. Then she abruptly stood and curtseyed to him. "Your Highness, please forgive me. It has been a morning of surprises."

"Do not concern yourself, Madame. We are all family here," he smiled.

The old Comtesse turned on the Duc, "Antoine! How could you possibly let this get so out of control? You failed to introduce the Prince and you allowed us to sit in his presence?" she demanded.

"I was assured that the Prince did not mind. The initial purpose of this visit was to reunite you and Danielle and to let Danielle see the château. Bringing the Prince along to inform you of the betrothal was a secondary consideration." That was the case, given that he had planned on the visit before the Prince had arrived two days ago and proposed to Danielle.

"How can the betrothal of my granddaughter to the Dauphin be secondary to anything? Slipped your mind, did it?" to Henry she added, "I am, of course, delighted to give my approval, Your Highness. When is the wedding to take place? In the spring?"

"In three weeks, in Paris," Henry said.

"Three weeks? In January? Surely the roads are too bad to travel in January. Danielle could stay here with me until the weather is better," she offered, taking Danielle's hand and holding it tightly.

"The King chose the date, my lady. We are expected in Paris next week. We could come for a visit in the spring, perhaps, if that would be convenient."

The Comtesse recognized she was going to have to be content with a visit in the spring. She was overflowing with gratitude that she had had a chance to meet Nicole's daughter and receive her forgiveness. She had lived for twenty years with the bitterness of regret for having disapproved of Nicole's marriage, causing the fracture within the family. The irony that the daughter of that marriage had shown up engaged to the Dauphin, of all men, wasn't lost on her.

She took the whole group on an exhaustive tour of the castle, from the dungeons to the battlements. Throughout the entire tour she entertained them all with many stories about her daughters growing up in the castle. They enjoyed a lively luncheon before mounting the battlements for a view of the valley and beyond.

They walked around enjoying the views. The sky had clouded over and the wind picked up since they had arrived. It was just past midday and they would need to be leaving soon to make it back to Dieppe before nightfall.

Danielle was standing by herself, looking out over the countryside. Henry came up behind her, putting his hands around her waist. "You have a beautiful castle, here, Comtesse. I have rarely seen its equal, and believe me when I tell you. I have seen many."

"It is beautiful, isn't it? 'Tis so strange to think that, had things worked out differently, I might have spent the last ten years living here. Even stranger still to think of it as belonging to me; my family has lived here for five-hundred years," she said in wonder. Grand'Mere had explained the current castle was three-hundred years old, but parts of the five-hundred year old keep were still visible.

"Do you see that flag, there?" he pointed to a flag on a turret near the front of the castle.

"Yes, what about it?"

"That flag means that you are in residence, Comtesse. They must have run it up after we got here. It wasn't flying when we arrived."

"Really? I have a flag? I never thought about it. My grandmother doesn't use it? She lives here. She is the Comtesse, too."

"She doesn't hold the title in her own right, as you do. She uses it as a courtesy title, because she was married to the Comte. Your servants wear your arms on their livery and carry your flag. Green and Gold: Green is for love and loyalty; Gold is for generosity."

"Do you think your mother realized those were the colors of my family? Nearly all of my dresses are green and many of them have gold embroidery on them as well."

He turned her to face him, smiling down into her eyes, "I think she chose green because of your eyes, but they are certainly appropriate, aren't they."

"Can we really come for a visit in the spring?"

"I think we will be able to arrange a visit," he lowered his head to kiss her. Suddenly they felt small, wet drops falling gently on their eyelids.

"It is snowing!" she squealed in delight. "We get so little snow back home." He released her and watched her childish delight in the snow, with a smile.

She played around, catching snowflakes on her tongue. The snow had picked up and was coming down hard. Soon, the whole countryside was blanketed in a soft, white layer. "Oh, how beautiful, look Henry!" she was pointing to the trees, coated with snow.

"Yes, beautiful," he agreed. But, he was looking at her. She sparkled with delight, her hair and eyelashes glistening with the fallen snow.

Antoine joined them. "Nicole and Grand'Mere went inside. If this snow keeps up much longer we will need to stay the night. We cannot risk travelling in a heavy snowstorm."

"Won't your mother worry if we do not return as scheduled?" Danielle worried.

"I will send a messenger. He will make better time travelling alone than our large party would" the Duc said.

"Oh, well then, in that case, I would love to stay over. What do you think Henry?" she smiled up at him.

"How could I possibly resist that smile?" he answered. "Of course we stay."

They all went inside and informed the Comtesse that she would be enjoying their company overnight. She was thrilled and immediately set about having rooms readied for them. Nicole and Danielle would have their mothers' rooms. Henry would use the master bedchamber, which hadn't been used since the Comte passed away. Antoine was assigned his usual room.

After dinner, the Comtesse took Danielle up to the room intended for the Comtesse. "Danielle, this room is for the Comtesse. It adjoins the master bedchamber, which I gave to your Prince," she smiled. "I have slept here since I married your grandfather. On your next visit, in the spring, it will be yours; after your marriage.

"Thank you, Grand'Mere. You really do not need to give me your room. I will only be a visitor, after all."

"Nonsense, you are the Comtesse de Lancret. This room has been occupied by the Comtesse for three-hundred years. I would give it to you tonight, if your handsome young man wasn't going to be right through that door," Danielle blushed at the implication.

"However, that is not the reason I brought you up here. I wanted to show you something," she led Danielle over to a large painting of two girls about Danielle's age. It was obvious it must be the original Danielle and Nicole, but the resemblance to the cousins was startling.

"Oh! I have never seen a likeness of my mother, before. Which is she?" Danielle looked with tearful, pleading eyes at her grandmother.

"Nicole is the one with the glint in her eye. She was always quite determined. She didn't like to stand still for the time required for a portrait."

"I'm so glad you insisted." Danielle stared raptly at her mother's portrait and tried to incorporate all of the new stories she had heard today into her vision of her mother.

"So am I. This was painted just a few months before she met your father."

"Why did you oppose their marriage?" Danielle asked gently.

"Your Grandfather had already arranged her marriage to another. Her first fiancé had died shortly before they were to be wed, and then your mother was ill for a time. My husband had finally arranged another marriage for her. That is why your Aunt Danielle married several years earlier than your mother. He was scheduled to travel from Belgium to marry her a month after she met your father. She refused to honour her engagement and married your father without our consent. Fortunately for you, the betrothal agreements had not been signed. They were to be signed when he arrived for the wedding. Therefore, your parents marriage was legal, but without our blessing. Your father was a respectable, untitled nobleman, but he was not her equal in social standing, title or wealth. And she was engaged! We accused him of marrying her for her title and wealth. Your father was affronted. And outraged. He declared he wanted only Nicole, not her title or her wealth; as if they could be separated. We never saw Nicole again. A year later, both she and my husband were dead, and we had no relationship with your father. It is unsurprising he then wanted nothing to do with us. We all mishandled it terribly," she finished tearfully. "I'm so sorry, Danielle."

"It is all right, Grand'Mere. I understand." Danielle hugged her in comfort. She did understand. It was tragic, but she understood. Both sides.

"I have one other likeness of your mother," Grand'Mere said as she got up and walked over to a desk by the window. She picked up a miniature, about 3 inches by 4 inches, caressing her fingers over the picture. It depicted a smiling Nicole of about sixteen summers. "You may take this one with you, if you like."

Danielle took it as if were made of the most delicate glass, "Truly, I may have this?"

"Yes, of course. You look so like your mother, Danielle. Only your eyes are your father's. Your mother's were bright blue; your father's were the blue green mixture, like yours."

That evening, just as Danielle was preparing to go to bed there was a knock at her door. She opened it to find Henry standing there.

"Hello," she said curiously.

"Hello, are you going to sleep now or were you planning on sneaking out for a walk tonight?"

She laughed, "I was planning on going to sleep."

"Oh. I thought with all that has happened today you might have trouble sleeping."

"Well, I may, but I haven't tried, yet."

"It is still snowing," he smiled.

"It is? Are you trying to lure me outside, Your Highness?" she looked up at him with a saucy smile.

"Perhaps I am," he smiled back.

"Well then, I suppose I should get my cloak."

"Yes, I suppose you should. And your boots and gloves, as well."

She bit back a smile. 'What is he up to?' she wondered as she drew on her boots and gloves. Henry came up behind her and draped her ermine cloak over her chemise.


"Yes, I'm ready." He took her hand and led her out into the hallway and up the stairs to the battlements. There was a full moon illuminating a pristine snow covered landscape. The snow still fell softly as they walked along, holding hands.

Since Henry knew that Danielle liked her solitary walks in order to think, he kept silent, enjoying being with her.

"It is hard to believe that my family was so divided over my parents' marriage that Grand'Mere and Aunt Danielle still do not speak after all of these years."

"Yes, but these family matters can be very complicated and emotional. The wounds can run very deep. Did you find out what, specifically, caused the estrangement?"

"Yes, my mother was engaged to a Belgian when she ran off to marry my father."

"Engaged? To a Belgian?" Henry said in surprise.

"Yes, why does that surprise you?"

"Your step-mother said that you were engaged to a Belgian when I went looking for you before the masque."

"How ironic. She must know everything. I was wondering, where is she now? What will happen to her?"

"She is in Paris with the court. She was sentenced to ten years in prison; she spends her days working in the court's laundry."

Danielle laughed, "Never say you made her into a servant?" she turned to him, flushed with laughter.

"I thought it was the most appropriate punishment. Stripping her of her title and being a servant for ten years," Henry explained.

"Well, she got part of what she wanted," said Danielle with a glint in her eye.

"What was that?"

"She wanted to be in Paris for Christmas; to celebrate your betrothal- to Marguerite," she laughed.

"Hmm, well she was in Paris, and one of her daughters is engaged to me. Do you think she celebrated?" he lifted her gloved hand to his lips, kissing the exposed skin at her wrist.

"I rather doubt it," Danielle said with a shiver.

Henry saw her shiver and he took her into his arms. "Are you too cold? Should we go inside, now?"

"No, I am not cold. Thinking about her gives me the shivers," she said with a hollow laugh.

Henry held her tighter, "Ah, I see. Well, she cannot hurt you any longer, Danielle."

"I know," she said, looking up into his eyes.

Henry took a deep breath and lowered his mouth to kiss hers. She leaned up to meet him, loving the feel of his lips on hers. He held her tightly against him. His lips hard, then soft, moulding hers. He slid his tongue across her lips, causing her to gasp in surprise. He deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue into her mouth, flirting with her tongue. She was clinging to his shoulders, certain she would fall down if he let go. Lost in the sensations. She tentatively touched his lips with her tongue, feeling wicked and daring. She spun out of control.

He pulled back slightly, taking in her flushed countenance, her heavy breathing. He kissed her cheek, her ear, the hollow of her throat, where her pulse beat erratically. He was holding her up, he realized with a grin. She was so passionate, his angel. She responded to him so instinctively. He had known she would. She was made for him. They for each other. A perfect match. He held her close, stroking her back. Getting himself under control with an effort.

A few minutes later, once her breathing had slowed and she was again standing on her own legs, Henry pulled back. "I think we should go inside."

"Are you cold?" she asked, in innocent disappointment.

"Cold? Ha, most definitely not. I think we are melting the snow. But, it grows late, and we have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow. You need to sleep. We both do."

Riding for Dieppe

The next morning the party set out early for Dieppe. It was a beautiful, crisp day. Blanketed with yesterday's snow, it looked like a completely different world to Danielle. When they reached the far side of the valley, where they had first seen the château, Danielle pulled her horse to a stop.

"Is something amiss, Danielle?" asked Henry.

"No, I just wanted to paint a picture of the château and the snow in my mind. I connected with my mother here, in a way I never believed would be possible," she smiled her pleasure at Henry, reminding him of how she had looked that day at the monastery when speaking of her father.

They stopped briefly in the town nearest to the château to let Danielle look around. The Duc introduced her to the few nobles seen that they hadn't met the day before. Danielle was intrigued by the quaint, little town and hoped she would have a chance to explore it in the spring.

They continued on their journey and arrived home in Dieppe by mid-afternoon.

That evening, Danielle wanted to speak privately with her aunt about all the things she had learned at Château de Lancret. She put a wrapper on over her chemise and left her room. On the way, she decided she had better let Henry know where she was going, so he didn't call out a search party. She laughed to herself. She found his room and knocked quietly on the door.

Henry opened the door, his eyes widening with pleasure at the sight of her standing there. "Danielle! Not going for a walk dressed like that, are you?"

"Hello Henry, I hope I'm not disturbing you?" she said, suddenly feeling inexplicably shy.

"No, never," he assured her earnestly, smiling at her.

"I just wanted to let you know that I am going to be in my aunt's room. So you needn't send out a search party, if you found me missing again, that is," she smiled.

"I'm sorry, Danielle. Sometimes I am just so afraid that you are going to vanish again. I hope you do not find it insufferable of me." He reached out to touch her cheek. He was finding it increasingly hard not to touch her, especially with her standing there in her bedclothes.

"No, never," echoing his response from a minute before. "'Tis actually quite nice to know that someone cares enough to bother searching for me if they think I am missing. No one has cared about me so much since my father died."

"I don't ever want to suffocate or control you, but I cannot help worrying about you. It has become something of a habit already, I'm afraid. Go, see your aunt. Just promise to come get me if you decide to take a walk, all right?" he kissed her on the cheek.

"I'll come get you if I get restless," she promised as she left. Danielle walked down to her aunt's room and knocked on the door.

"Danielle, come in dear," said her aunt upon opening the door.

"Hello Matante. I wanted to talk to you about my mother and grandmother, if we may."

"Of course, I should have realized you would want to talk after meeting her. What did you think of the château?"

"It is beautiful. I had no idea how grand it was. Like a picture from a fairytale. My grandmother seems to genuinely regret how she treated my parents. She apologized… and I forgave her."

Danielle's aunt got up and walked over to gaze down into the fireplace. "I'm glad you were able to find it in your heart to forgive her, Danielle. I don't know if I will ever be able to forgive her. When your mother died, a part of me died as well. I don't think most people can understand that special bond. If she had not been banished from the family and so heartbroken over it, perhaps things would have worked out differently."

"There is no way to know if things would have been any different if she had had their approval."

"I know. Nicole was not strong, constitutionally. She had been quite ill the year before. She nearly died then, as well."

"I'm sorry, Aunt Danielle," she went over and hugged her aunt. "When was the last time you saw your mother?"

"I haven't seen her in ten years," she replied flatly.

"Don't you think it is about time?" Danielle asked gently.

The Duchess took a deep breath, "I suppose I can try. I guess it would be a good idea for me to go see her before your wedding."

"Thank you, Matante. I think you will find some peace if you can find it in your heart to forgive her."

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 23 of 35

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