Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 29 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

A few weeks later, the court arrived back at Hautefort. Danielle was overcome with the memories of her last day at Hautefort; especially the memory of saying goodbye to Henry in the courtyard. Had it been only nine months ago? It was now the first week of September. It seemed a lifetime ago.

Danielle enjoyed the slightly less formal lifestyle of Hautefort, compared to life in Paris. She was able to visit her friends, Gustave and the servants at Manor de Barbarac every week. She had to ride in a carriage now, since her pregnancy was showing. Horseback riding was too dangerous. Marguerite often accompanied her on these trips, and Danielle enjoyed watching her friends as they slowly adjusted to the new, much improved Marguerite.

Jacqueline and her husband had stayed behind at Fontainebleau, as Jacqueline was expecting a baby within a month and wasn't feeling up to travelling. The last few weeks at Fontainebleau had been hard on the four girls. Danielle and Nicole had been recovering from their abduction and all four of them had been affected by Rodmilla's death.

They had held a small, private funeral in Paris, attended only by the family. Danielle had insisted on seeing Rodmilla with her own eyes, so Henry had reluctantly arranged a private viewing, as well. Seeing her dead had helped Danielle to close that chapter of her past.

Danielle was feeling a bit bored and restless with the limited activities permitted a pregnant Princess, so Henry had arranged some tutors for her. She had been permitted to sit in on Marguerite and Jacqueline's lessons after her father had died, but since neither of her step-sisters was much of a scholar the range of subjects was limited. Danielle had been significantly further ahead in her studies than her sisters when they arrived, so the Baroness took advantage, having Danielle help her daughters with their studies and having the tutors come less often.

She was now spending hours every day learning Greek, improving her Latin and studying other subjects the Queen had recommended: protocol, music and history.

Marguerite's interest in helping orphans had begun the previous winter in Paris, as a way of making amends for all she had done to the orphaned Danielle. The plight of orphans had now grown into her passion. Upon their return to Hautefort she spent many hours looking into the circumstances of orphans in the region. She found no orphanages that specifically prepared orphans to be productive members of society existed in this part of the country. Foundling homes, which raised abandoned infants until they could be fostered out to work on farms or as household servants, were all that she found. The Paris model, which educated and trained the children into adolescence, seemed to her a superior approach. She decided that she would like to start a charitable agency to raise money to build such an orphanage in Périgord.

She talked of her dreams of starting such an orphanage in Périgord to Gustave and he thought she was building castles in the air, but he marveled at the change in her. Where was the self-absorbed brat of a girl of only a year before? She had grown into a woman with a mission.

Several men who had received portraits of Marguerite had travelled to Hautefort to meet her, at the King's invitation. They were all captivated by her beauty and passion. One, upon hearing of her fits of temper and past bad relationship with the Princess, left a week later. The two remaining men were seriously intrigued as were some of the regular courtiers who had grown to know her over the past year.

One day, Danielle spied Marguerite sitting alone in the garden and sat down next to her. "Hello, Marguerite, where are your beaux today?" she teased.

"Your Highness," Marguerite said. She nearly always addressed Danielle formally. "They are out hunting with your husband, I believe."

"How do you like them? Is there anyone you would consider marrying if they offered?"

"They are pleasant enough, and I would have to be honoured if either of them proposed," she answered evasively, referring to the two who had come in response to the portraits.

"Oh, you would accept either one? I thought you wanted to marry for love?" Danielle asked gently.

Danielle saw a tear in Marguerite's eye, but she quickly blinked it away. "Not everyone is so fortunate as to be able to marry for love, Your Highness. Some people, like you, inspire love in others. I seem to inspire desire and possessiveness, but not love. I am still my mother's daughter."

"Oh Marguerite! Surely there is a man out there that you could love and who would love you in return." Danielle reached out and squeezed her hand. Marguerite's eyes now brimmed with tears, which she was trying to ignore. "Is there someone you love, Marguerite?"

"The man I love will never love me, never marry me. To him I will always be the selfish, spoiled brat who tried to ruin your life, your happiness with the Prince... Since I cannot have him, and the King desires me to marry, I will have to accept someone else soon. Please excuse me, Your Highness," with that she got up, curtseyed and quickly left.

Danielle sat in the garden, reviewing all that Marguerite had revealed and wondering who this man could be: obviously not one of the new suitors. Someone Marguerite had known since before she had married Henry. Someone who blamed Marguerite for trying to steal Henry? That meant it had to be someone who cared about either her or Henry. Possibly someone who had attended the masque, Danielle thought. That certainly narrows it down to the few courtiers Danielle knew well last fall and maybe her cousin the Duc. She would make a point of watching Marguerite to see if she could ascertain. Maybe she should invite her cousin for a visit. She couldn't think of any courtiers who would have taken offense on her account, so it must be one of Henry's friends, she decided.

Over the next week, Danielle observed Marguerite carefully. She talked over her suspicions with Nicole. They made up a list of Henry's closest friends to see if they could narrow it down. Antoine was coming for a visit, but Nicole doubted it was her brother who had captured Marguerite's heart. They had never spent any time together, as far as she knew.

"What about the Marquis de Limoges?" Danielle speculated. "He is very handsome and one of Henry's closest friends. I could easily believe he would not like someone who hurt Henry. He has the wealth, looks and title that most women want. Next to Antoine, he is one of the most eligible in France, I dare say."

Nicole was stunned. "You think Marguerite is in love with the Marquis de Limoges?" she squeaked.

"I don't know. I am just speculating. What do you think?" Danielle asked, curious about Nicole's reaction.

"I don't know about Marguerite's feelings, but I do know that he dislikes her. He once told me a story about a tennis match he played with Prince Henry where she was very bold, throwing herself at the Prince. Henry had told Noël that you were going to be there at the match, but you didn't appear. Marguerite pounced upon him and he ended up taking her for that walk in the marketplace when you threw the chicken at him. Noël said that she acted more like a potential mistress than a potential bride. He seemed angry at me that you hadn't come when the Prince invited you, leaving him disappointed, vulnerable, and at the mercy of Marguerite."

"'Noël', Nicole? You and the Marquis are on a first name basis? What have I missed here?" Danielle smiled at her sister.

Nicole blushed. She knew! "We are not on a first name basis, officially, but I do think of him as Noël. I confess, I think I am half in love with him, but he seems to keep me at a distance. Perhaps he is in love with another? Maybe Marguerite?" she said sadly. Just how many unrequited loves do we have here, both wondered simultaneously.

Danielle hugged her sister, "Well, we shall certainly have to find out who he is thinking of, be it you, or Marguerite or another." Nicole is in love! Danielle was excited for her sister. "Can you think of anyone else she might be in love with? He is unmarried and most likely a friend of Henry's, remember."

"He could be a friend of yours," Nicole suggested.

"Who? I could think of no one," Danielle laughed, shaking her head. "I barely knew anyone last year, Nicole."

"What about Gustave?"

"Gustave! You cannot be serious," Danielle laughed, dismissing the very idea.

"Whyever not? They have known each other for years. He certainly remembers all of her past misdeeds. He was always furious at her for the way she treated you. He helped to get you and the Prince together, but was outmaneuvered by Marguerite's mother. Furthermore, they have spent a great deal of time together since you married," Nicole argued, making the case.

Danielle thought it over, "Well, he does seem to fit the general idea, but I simply cannot imagine them together. They have hated each other for years, Nicole! I know she has changed, but could she have changed enough to actually wish to marry Gustave? He was only recently ennobled. He has no money, no land, and no connections. Would she really choose him over a wealthy, titled lord? As for Gustave, I don't know if he will ever be able to see her as other than the selfish, spoiled creature she was. I want Gustave to find someone to love who will appreciate all of his wonderful qualities, not someone who will come to regret marrying for love instead of for more practical considerations. If he were to fall in love with her, she could destroy him."

"Are we going to visit him tomorrow?" Nicole asked, knowing the answer.

Danielle smiled, "You know we are. I think I shall ask Henry to come along and bring 'Noël.'"

Each smiled at the other in perfect understanding.

The next morning, they rode to Manor de Barbarac. Prince Henry and the Marquis rode on horseback while the three ladies travelled in the carriage. They spent most of the day there. Walking among the gardens, they saw that Gustave had worked hard to recover some of their previous beauty, using a fine artistic eye. A larger staff had been added to try and bring the estate back to the prosperous state it had been before the Baroness had neglected it to the point of financial ruin.

"Oh Gustave, you have worked wonders here. It looks as if you are going to have a nice harvest this year," Danielle noted, seeing all of the fields full of crops again, with pleasure. The Baroness hadn't wanted to be a lowly farmer and had let the fields lie fallow.

"It was not me, Danielle. It was mostly the steward you hired, you must know. It is wonderful to see the place productive again, I do agree," Gustave said enthusiastically.

After lunch, Danielle asked Marguerite about her plans to start a charity to fund an orphanage in Périgord, to gauge the reactions of the Marquis and Gustave. By the end of the afternoon she knew several things: Marguerite was in love with Gustave and he was pleased to hear more about her plans for the orphanage. But, Danielle couldn't tell if he was in love. The Marquis showed no interest in Marguerite, nor she in him.

She also knew that Nicole was in love with the Marquis. He clearly enjoyed her company, but likewise showed no signs of love. Men!

On the way home, she pondered all she had seen and learned in one day. Was it possible the men were in love and she just couldn't tell? With Henry it was so easy, he just glowed with love. Not all men were as open with their feelings, she knew. She decided to make an effort to get the couples into each other's company more often in the next few weeks and see what might occur.

By the beginning of October, Danielle was sure that Marguerite and Gustave were in love with each other, but neither had declared themselves. Danielle knew that Gustave didn't feel worthy of offering for Marguerite since his only income was from his paintings. Danielle had decided to give him the manor, but she wasn't sure if she should give it to him before Marguerite told him that she loved him. Marguerite had no idea of her plans for the manor and she knew it would mean more to Gustave if Marguerite admitted her love to him as he was. He might also fear that the changes in her were impermanent, but there was nothing Danielle could do about that impediment. That was one they would have to overcome themselves. She could, however, remove the financial barrier. Surely, she had enough money to accomplish that. What good was all her money, if she couldn't help the people she loved with it, after all?

Danielle was reviewing some financial statements from her estate that Antoine had brought with him, when she noticed a huge deposit of gold into one of her accounts, with no explanation. She asked Antoine about the deposit and he told her to ask Henry.

She sought out Henry that afternoon, after her lessons. She found him just returned from a ride with a group of friends, including Nicole and the Marquis. Henry was pleased to see her waiting for him. "Hello, my love. Waiting for me?" he asked as he dismounted, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"Yes, actually, I was," she took his arm and they walked towards the gardens. "Antoine couldn't tell me the source of a huge deposit into one of my accounts. He said I should ask you."

"Well, I suppose you were bound to notice such a sizable deposit, but if you hadn't, then I wasn't going to bring it up," Henry started.

"Not notice? How could I not notice such a huge sum? 'Tis a fortune, Henry. Why wouldn't you want to bring it up?" she wondered.

"I didn't want to upset you by bringing up anything that might remind you of your step-mother or the abduction. It is the money she had with her when we rescued you," he told her gently.

"I'm sorry that you think me so fragile that you couldn't bring the topic up, Henry. I think about it a lot, you know." They walked along in silence for a few minutes. "Where would she have gotten that kind of money, and why would you give it to me? Did you ever find out why she didn't sail for the Americas?"

"The ship she was on, bound for the colonies, sank in a storm; somehow she survived. She must have had this money hidden somewhere in France. We haven't been able to trace it. We know she embezzled money from your father's estate and took money from your late uncle the Duc, for your upkeep. As far as we can tell, the money is rightfully yours."

"It doesn't make sense. How could she have embezzled such a large fortune? She was always worried about money. She even sold off my father's possessions to raise money. Why would she have done that if she had access to such a fortune?" Danielle wondered.

"We'll never know for sure. We don't have any financial records from the estate before he married your step-mother. She must have destroyed them, to cover her tracks. She may have been afraid of attracting attention by spending it. Some people just hoard money, afraid they will be left with nothing if they start spending."

"She never struck me as a miser, Henry. Well, I do know one thing. I do not want any of it. I want nothing connected to her."

"Well then, what do you propose we do with it? It is an enormous fortune. You could do a lot of good with it."

"We shall have to pray about it and give it careful consideration. I think I would like to give some to Jacqueline and Marguerite, some to Gustave and the servants, too. What would you think about endowing Marguerite's charity for orphans? That would be quite a legacy from my step-mother," she smiled mischievously. "Imagine- to benefit orphans after she mistreated her own!"

"I think those are all wonderful ideas, Danielle. I will speak to Antoine about having it transferred into a special account for you to distribute once you have finalized your plans. How are you feeling today?" he patted her rounded stomach with a smile.

"I'm a little tired and I feel fat and awkward," she sighed, making a face at him. He looked amazingly fit and handsome after his ride, she thought. She felt ungainly next to him.

He laughed, "You look radiantly beautiful, not awkward in the least." He pulled her into his arms, both of them remembering the day, ten months past, when they had stood in this same spot, preparing to say goodbye.

The baby gave a hard kick just then. Henry felt it against his abdomen. "Whoa!" he laughed, and then he knelt down and spoke to Danielle's belly. "Trying to kick me away, are you little fellow? She was mine first, you know. We are going to have to learn to share," he kissed her belly and got up, smiling down into her eyes. Danielle smiled back up at him, feeling completely loved and secure, and it shone in her eyes. They walked on, holding hands, talking quietly and not caring if they had an audience.

Along with many others, Nicole had witnessed this tender exchange. She was so happy that things had finally worked out for Danielle and Henry. She had never seen two people so deeply in love. She turned around to leave, wiping tears from her eyes and bumped into the Marquis. "Oh, excuse me! I didn't see you, my lord," she blushed.

He was looking at her intently, as if trying to read her mind. "It is quite all right, my lady. I was watching them, too. It is rare indeed to see a married couple so clearly in love."

"Yes, they are so blessed. 'Tis so wonderful to see how happy they are together. So few in our world are fortunate enough to be able to marry for love," she said wistfully.

"And you, Nicole, do you wish to marry for love?"

She was surprised, taken aback both at the question and at his use of her Christian name. "Yes, I think most women would wish to marry for love. I see how happy my sister is and it makes it difficult to accept the suits of men who are interested in my connections or my wealth more than me."

"Have you had offers of that nature?" he asked, leaning towards her.

Nicole thought these questions were quite personal, but she answered him, anyway. "Yes, I have had several offers in the last few months: no one for whom I felt any affection. Antoine turned them down at my request, but he reminds me that I needs must marry soon. I am not getting any younger. I will be twenty in May.

He offered Nicole his arm and they walked into the garden. The Danielle/Nicole mystery was the one topic he had never discussed with Henry. He had been intensely attracted to Nicole from the moment they had met, but he always wondered about her relationship with Henry. They treated each other as a brother and sister might, but he clearly remembered Henry telling him about his love for Nicole. Had it really been Danielle the whole time? Or both? Both twins? He had to know the truth, but would she tell him? He wondered.

"You seem a thousand miles away, milord," she broke into his thoughts.

He looked down into her face. So like Danielle's, but he found it hard to believe Henry hadn't been able to tell them apart. Their personalities were so different. Except, he suspected, Henry had thought he was dealing with only one woman.

"Nicole, May I ask you some hard questions?"

She wondered what he wanted to know. He seemed so serious. Maybe whatever he wanted to ask involved the reason he seemed to hold her at a distance. He seemed to be struggling with something today, she thought. "Yes, certainly, ask your questions," curious.

"Thank you… Why did Prince Henry call Danielle 'Nicole' at the masque? Was it Danielle or you? Why were you playing such a trick on him? Didn't you see or care that he would be hurt when the truth came out?" he seemed almost angry with her. "I have been struggling to figure out how you and Danielle could have been so callous of his feelings. It seems at odds with the women I have come to know, lo, this past year." He fired off his questions, wondering what her reaction would be. He rather expected embarrassment and a childish prank as an excuse.

Nicole stared at him, aghast. "Oh, no! You don't understand!"

"Really? Explain it to me, then," he said doubtfully. He noticed she hadn't answered a single one of his questions.

"I-I cannot. I am not supposed to talk about it," she cried in distress.

"Were you in love with him? Are you in love with him now? Was he in love with both of you?" There! He had finally voiced all of his concerns. He carefully scrutinized the emotions playing across her expressive face. She had been distressed about his first series of questions, frustrated that she was, apparently, not allowed to explain the truth and furious at the suggestion that she might be in love with the Prince.

She hissed at him, "Of course not! How dare you suggest such a thing? He has never loved anyone but Danielle! You have seen them together. I didn't even meet him-" she caught herself. Taking a deep breath she tried to compose herself. "I am not now, nor have I ever been, in love with him, my lord." She stared at him in disappointment. "I wish I could answer your other questions, but Prince Henry and the King said that we shouldn't talk about it. If you need answers, then please ask Prince Henry," she turned to walk away but he followed her.

"I'm sorry I upset you. That was not my intent."

She stopped and turned towards him, "What is your intent then, idle curiosity?"

"No, of course not!" he insisted.

"Then what is it? Why does it matter to you?"

"Henry is my dearest friend and I was very affected by what you did to him. It is difficult to reconcile the Nicole I know with the Nicole who hurt Henry so deeply. 'Tis hard to allow myself to trust you," he finished, searching her eyes.

Her eyes widened in shock. Nicole nearly told him everything, when she saw Henry and Danielle emerge from the arboretum into the courtyard. Acting on impulse, she took the Marquis by the hand and headed towards them.

Noël wondered what she was up to, leading him across the courtyard by the hand. He saw her target and immediately pulled her to a stop, "What are you doing?"

"I am going to get you your answers, before I say something I shouldn't," she started walking again.

He took her hand and placed it on his arm, walking along with her, resigning himself to whatever confrontation she had in mind. He had never planned to bring Henry into this, and was now embarrassed that the Prince would find out he had been questioning Nicole about their relationship. He knew her well enough to realize it was futile trying to stop her at this point.

Henry looked over Danielle's shoulder and saw Nicole practically dragging the Marquis de Limoges across the courtyard, towards them, "Look at this, Danielle," he marveled.

Danielle turned around, surprised to see Nicole and the Marquis. Nicole looked angry; the Marquis looked embarrassed as they approached.

"Your Highness," both said in greeting.

"Is something wrong?" Danielle said, taking in her sister's high colour and the fact that Nicole had dragged the Marquis across the courtyard, drawing many eyes.

Nicole answered, "Yes, there is. May we speak in private?" she looked from Danielle to Henry, "all four of us."

Henry answered, "Of course, Nicole. Why don't you and Danielle head inside. The Marquis and I will join you in a few minutes." A very smooth, royal attempt to avoid an unwanted surprise. He thought it wise to speak to Noël alone before joining the ladies.

Danielle and Nicole went inside to await the men. As soon as they reached Henry and Danielle's apartments Nicole burst out with, "I need to tell him everything, Danielle. He doesn't have any idea about what happened at the masque. He believes that we tricked the Prince deliberately, with total disregard for his feelings. He doesn't trust me!"

"I'm so sorry, Nicole. I never imagined that anyone would hold that story against you. Of course we will tell him. Did you tell him how you feel?"

"I told him only that he didn't understand and that I was never in love with Henry," she explained.

"He thought you were in love with Henry?"

"He asked me if I was and I told him 'no.'"

After the ladies had left, Henry said to Noël, "Lady Nicole seems upset about something, Noël. Has something happened?"

"Yes, Your Highness. She was upset by some questions I asked her, I'm afraid." He dreaded telling Henry that he had been delving into his relationship with Nicole. Questioning his Nicole.

"What questions?"

"I asked her about the masque. Why they had deceived you and whether she was in love with you," he admitted, ruefully.

"You did?" Henry raised an eyebrow. "Why do you want to know, Noël? The King thought it best to keep it all a mystery."

"Yes, so Nicole informs me." Noël ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I have considered Nicole yours since the moment I met her on the day of her presentation. I remember how you talked about her, Henry. I know you chose Danielle in the end, but if you love Nicole, too, then she is off limits to me. I am in love with her, but I cannot forget the callous disregard they showed for your feelings last year. I am happy that you and Princess Danielle have worked through it and you were able to forgive her, but I'm not sure I can ever trust Nicole. If I can get past it, would you have any objection to me marrying her?" he finished, despondently. Wondering how angry the Prince would be.

To his surprise, Henry laughed and threw his arm around Noël's shoulders as they walked. "Well, perhaps we should go see the Duc de LeVey before we join the ladies. You can get his permission to pay your addresses to Nicole. That way, when you are done apologizing for whatever you accused her of, you can propose."

"You don't even know what I accused her of Henry, so how can you know I will need to apologize?"

"Well, since I had not even met Nicole until weeks after the masque and she had not seen Danielle since they were babies, you cannot blame her for anything that happened."

"What? How can that be?"

"When I met Danielle, she refused to give me her name, if you can believe that. I chased her across the courtyard, here," Henry pointed to the very place, "trying to convince her to tell me. I finally implored her to 'give me a name, any name' and she gave me the name of their mother, Comtesse Nicole de Lancret, thinking we would never meet again. We ran into each other constantly for the five days before the masque. She tried several times to work up the courage to tell me the truth, but she never did. The Baroness had whipped Danielle the day before the masque because I had kept her out all night. She tried to tell me that afternoon, but when I told her that I loved her and would announce it at the masque, she left, crying. I had embraced her and she was in agony from the whipping she had received that morning, so she just ran away. The Baroness figured out what was happening and locked her in the root cellar. She told the Queen that the Comtesse was engaged to another and had left for Belgium. When Danielle escaped and appeared at the masque she said several times that she needed to speak with me, but I was too excited to listen to her…again… so I pulled her down the aisle where that witch of a step-mother revealed her true name and claimed she was a servant. I thought her name was Nicole, but it was always my Danielle. The King tracked down her mother's family and we discovered that Danielle really was the Comtesse de Lancret, which she hadn't even known. I met Nicole the day she came to court to be reunited with Danielle: only the day before their presentation. I think you know the rest," Henry finished.

Noël was astonished at what he had heard. He had never been able to imagine a scenario where Nicole was totally innocent. He smiled at Henry in relief. "You only met her one day before I did? You were already in love with Danielle at the time?"

"Yes, the first time I saw her I did think she was Danielle, actually. When she told me her name was Nicole, you could say I was more than a little confused. Fortunately, Antoine was there to explain, so I knew there were two of them within two minutes of meeting Nicole. Your Nicole, not mine. Never mine."

"I think you are right, Henry. I need to speak to the Duc. I hope she will be my Nicole. She will have to forgive me, first."

Nicole was getting impatient waiting for the men to join them. "Wherever can they be? It has been over an hour."

"I imagine they will be along anytime now. Just try to relax. We will explain everything. Try not to worry. The fact that he asked you all of these questions must mean that he has feelings for you."

Just then the door opened, and Henry and Noël walked in. They were both smiling, Danielle noticed, pleased. Henry came to her saying, "I think you look like you could use a nap, Princess," he announced, pulling her to her feet and leading her towards their bedchamber.

"Henry, we need to talk first," she protested, confused.

"I have explained everything to Noël, my love. We will let them speak privately now." He led the flustered Princess into the bedchamber and closed the door, suddenly leaving Nicole and Noël alone in the outer room. It became very quiet.

Noël walked up to Nicole and took her hands in his. "Nicole, I'm sorry. I accused you of some terrible things earlier. Henry explained to me what really happened. Do you think you can forgive me?"

"Yes, I forgive you. You only believed the story that the King decided upon, like everyone else, I expect. It says a lot about you that your friend's suffering affected you so. I'm only sorry I couldn't tell you earlier," she responded.

"Thank you, it says a lot about you that you kept your word to not speak about it when you were accused- unjustly- and couldn't defend yourself. I think there are few people who are that trustworthy and loyal." He stood there gazing into her eyes for a few moments, trying to decide what to say next. He wanted to take her into his arms and kiss her, but he knew he had first to tell her why he wanted to take her into his arms and kiss her! "From the moment we met, I have been drawn to you. You were on Henry's arm in the garden, after your presentation, when we were introduced. In my mind, you were Henry's Nicole, which meant you were strictly off-limits. By the time it became clear that he was in love with Danielle, I had already convinced myself of your treachery and deceit. The day you left for Dieppe, I saw you dressed as Danielle, then as yourself, and then again as Danielle: playing the whole court as a group of fools. And, me, as the biggest fool of all."

Nicole gasped, her eyes widening in surprise. She hadn't realized he had seen through that day's deception or that he had been able to tell them apart.

"I was furious and nearly confronted you, until I realized that I hadn't seen either Henry or the real Danielle the whole morning. You did it for them, didn't you; to give them some private time together?"

"Yes, Danielle asked me to cover for her so that she wouldn't be missed."

He nodded his head, "I think seeing you pretending to be Danielle to the whole court convinced me, or allowed me to believe, that you were the one to blame for the entire mess. And my conflicted feelings. I know that makes no real sense, but I wanted to see Danielle as worthy of Henry's love. Blaming you made that possible. I have struggled these past months to make sense of my feelings for you. I am in love with you, Nicole. I was afraid to admit it, even to myself. How could I trust you after how I thought you had treated Henry? The more time we have spent together, the more I wanted to be with you. Needed to be with you. To be whole. This past month we seem to have been together nearly every day, but it just made me realize that it isn't enough. When I think of the future, you are always there," he led the speechless Nicole over to a chair and sat her down. Keeping her hands in his, he knelt on one knee before her. "Nicole, I love you. I want to spend my life with you at my side. Will you marry me?" he finished, hopefully.

Nicole's eyes were awash with tears. "I thought you disliked me, my lord. I have been in love with you for many months," the tears spilled over onto her cheeks.

Noël smiled broadly. He pulled Nicole to her feet, taking her into his arms, at last, "My name is 'Noël,'" he said as he lowered his head and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. "Will you marry me, Nicole?" he repeated as he kissed her again, longer this time.

Nicole was amazed at the feelings that washed over her at the mere touch of his lips. She couldn't think, only experience the wonder of it. When he pulled back, looking at her questioningly she realized he was waiting for her answer. When she could speak she said, "Yes, Noël, I will marry you. We will need to get my brother's permission. Thankfully, he is here visiting."

Noël smiled in relief. "I spoke to him a few moments ago, Nicole. He said he had no objection and that it was up to you... I asked Henry's permission, too, just to be sure," he smiled down at her and kissed her again.

That evening, the Duc announced the betrothal of Lady Nicole and Noël, the Marquis de Limoges, to the court. Their friends and families flocked around them offering congratulations. However had they hidden this, and from so many prying eyes, they marveled? The wedding was to be six weeks hence, in Paris.

Lady Nicole had been very sought after as a bride by those interested in her close connection to the Princess. In addition to the three proposals she had refused, the Duc had refused half a dozen more from unsuitable candidates in only the last few weeks. He was relieved that his sister had finally settled on someone he heartily approved of. Some of those men now turned their attentions towards Marguerite, the last available sister of the Princess. Not a blood relation, but definitely on intimate terms with the Princess, nonetheless. Her golden beauty was especially radiant these days as she was in love and full of purpose and excitement with her plans for the new orphanage. An exquisite beauty dazzled many as inner beauty blossomed, transforming her. Her usual court of admirers grew dramatically over the next few weeks. Exponentially.

One day Danielle invited Marguerite to come see her, so that she could inform her of the financial settlements she intended to make. After they were comfortably settled, Danielle began.

"Marguerite, I wanted to let you know that much of the money that your mother embezzled over the years has been recovered."

"How can that be? She must have spent it all, for we never had money to spare," she asked.

"Apparently, she was hiding it, somewhere. They found a fortune in her room at the Château des Tourelles."

"Oh, well then, I am glad you have your money back," she said, curious as to why Danielle was telling her. Other people's money no longer allured her.

"Thank you, Marguerite. I do not need the money, and quite frankly, I do not want what she stole. I have decided to give some of the money to you, Jacqueline and the servants. I will use some to restore the manor. Your share will allow you to live comfortably anywhere you choose. You will be able to marry whomever you wish, without having to worry about money. Not lavishly, but certainly comfortably."

Marguerite started crying and whispered, "Thank you, but why? Why would you give me money?"

"You're welcome. You and Jacqueline were left without dowries and I wanted to remedy that. I have also decided to endow the charity for your orphanage with an even larger sum. Enough to get the orphanage built and up and running."

"You are going to endow the orphanage? Truly? Oh thank you, Danielle. You have no idea how much this means to me," she fell to the floor, taking Danielle's hand and kissing it gratefully. Her sweet, little orphans! Oh they, too, will be so grateful!

Danielle raised Marguerite off the floor, embarrassed, "Marguerite, do not do that, please. If you wish to show your affection, you may hug me. This formality seems ridiculous after we grew up together, in the same house. You need not keep humbling yourself before me," she put her arms out, offering a hug and the girls embraced, for the first time.

"Here are the papers, Marguerite. The money is yours as soon as you sign them. The endowment will go directly to the charity once you have the official papers drawn."

Marguerite looked at the papers and was astonished at the amounts indicated. Danielle had called it enough to live comfortably, but Marguerite thought it was rather more than that. Probably, more than they had ever had growing up, she thought. She could afford to set up a house in Périgord and be here to oversee the building of the orphanage. She could even afford to marry Gustave if she could convince him she had really changed. Maybe he would believe her after the court left in a few days and she stayed behind to start the orphanage. She would ask him to help her. That would give her an excuse to keep seeing him after Danielle left.

Danielle had told the King and Queen about her plans to distribute the money. The King thought the fact that Marguerite was now an heiress would add to her attractions, so he spread the news about. For the first time in her life, Marguerite had the experience of being hunted and pursued for something other than her beauty. Hunted, she had a new appreciation of how the Prince must have felt before he finally found and married Danielle.

A few days later, Danielle and Henry met with Gustave at the manor. Danielle told him that she wanted to give the manor to him. He was astonished, and she explained her reasons. "I want this to become a loving home again. I will never live here; my home is wherever Henry is, now." Henry smiled hugely at this statement from his wife. He knew how important her father's house was to her.

"I want you to make it yours, Gustave. Someday you will marry and have a family. You will be able to fill this old house with love, laughter and children again. To make sure you can afford to keep it up and restore it, I am also giving you 50,000 gold francs."

"What! Danielle, that is a king's ransom. What will I do with so much money?" he exclaimed.

"Well, first you should glaze the windows," she smiled playfully at him. "You do not need to do anything with the money, save it for the future. Use the interest the money earns to invest in the manor. I haven't told anyone, except Henry and the King and Queen, that I am giving you the manor or the money. You don't need any fortune hunting predatory females here pursuing you. Marguerite is having quite a time fending off the men, herself, since the King let it be known she is an heiress; even though I gave her much less money and no land." She wondered how the vision of Marguerite fending off fortune hunters would affect Gustave.

"Well, I imagine she is enjoying being pursued by all of the noblemen," he said, resignedly.

"Perhaps, but she wants to be loved, not hunted for her fortune, Gustave. She is like most women in that respect. Given the choice of love or money, wise women choose love," she said gently.

Henry asked Gustave, "Will we see you at the betrothal ball being given by the Marquise tomorrow, in Limoges?"

"Yes, Your Highness, Danielle made me promise to attend."

The morning of the betrothal ball, Henry woke up when he reached out for Danielle and found only sheets and blankets in his bed. He sat up quickly, looking around the dark room. Suddenly something landed on his pillow. He jumped in surprise. "Danielle?" Something landed in his lap. He jumped out of bed, "Danielle?" He couldn't see her but he heard her giggle. He picked up two apples from the bed in puzzlement. Then it dawned on him. Early in the morning, precisely a year ago, she had unseated him from his horse with an apple. One well-aimed apple. "Are you planning to pelt me with a whole bushel of apples this morning?" he laughed, looking around for her. "Your aim was better last year, but I think I prefer the image of you groveling at my feet," he heard her laugh again from just beyond the bed curtains. "Maybe I should just shower you in gold to appease you." He moved swiftly to her hiding place and scooped her up, causing her to drop two more apples.

She squealed in surprise, "Put me down!" she laughed.

He carried her back to the bed, laying her down and kissing her thoroughly. "You are wonderful. You may pelt me with apples anytime you wish. If you hadn't that first day, we might never have met."

"Personally, I believe we were destined to be together. Whatever else could explain all that we have been through in this past year?" she snuggled closer to him, content. Yes, most content.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 29 of 35

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