Lola awoke because the babies were active. When she opened her eyes, she realised it was also because her husband had his hand on her belly. She didn't stir for a while, just soaked in the experience of observing him in secret.
Since she was laying on her side facing him, he had scooted down and was touching her as lightly as he dared. Despite only having a side profile visible, it stirred her heart to see him rest his forehead against her womb, closing his eyes as if in prayer. Here before her was not the hardened noble of old. He was a man. He was hers.
"They are quite energetic," she murmured. Clear blue eyes snapped open and he smiled sheepishly.
"I am sorry if I woke you."
"They woke me." Lola inched up against the pillows and gestured towards her stomach. "Satisfy your curiosity," she said, rolling her eyes with mock annoyance.
With a wicked grin, Stéphane raised her nightgown until it rested above the large swell, pressing kisses to her upper thighs as he moved along. When he eventually reached his goal, he rested his cheek against her stomach.
Lola brushed her fingers through his short hair, a little bemused at his reverence. "Your other wives did not allow you this close when they were pregnant?"
"My first was so young and painfully bashful," he drawled. "Her mother had taught her that body parts should always be kept hidden beneath layer upon layer of fabric. I never actually saw her naked. Ever." He was quiet for a moment. "When she carried Éduard, she moved out of my rooms and never returned."
Her heart went out to him. But she reminded herself that this time, it would be different – for both of them. She too had been alone during her pregnancy. There had been people around her of course, but she had been lonely nonetheless. "You missed out on the best parts," Lola said. "Watching your child grow, it is a miracle both parents should enjoy."
"Though it might be hard to fathom, considering the amount of times I've been wed," he said with dramatic irony, "I am experiencing many firsts with you Lola."
"Oh?" she asked playfully as she tugged on his hair so he looked at her.
"Love." Her heart squeezed when his soft blue gaze found hers. "And you share my bedroom with me. None of the others did."
"You're joking?" Again her eyes bulged. "This is the best part! I have easy access to you."
He chuckled, placing a kiss to her belly before moving up to kiss her lips.
"I visited a marital bed. But it was never really a marriage. Not in the true sense."
Lola nuzzled against him before her eyes found his, earnest. "We're alright?"
"More than," he said, his lips finding hers. Their foreheads rested together in a moment of calm contemplation. The estate had roused, around them the distant sounds of industry could be heard. But inside their bedroom, things were still quiet and tranquil.
"Stéphane, what happened to you all those weeks?" She touched his cheek, her eyes threatening to mist over.
He stilled, saying nothing for a long time. Lola remained patient, waiting until he was ready. "Honestly, I do not want to think about it any longer. In captivity, I had only two realities. Pain and recovery. And then it became so that the pain was all consuming, permanent and recovery no longer existed."
"Don't be. Your words gave me pause Lola, as they always tend to, but they did not make me do anything I did not want to."
She leaned in and pressed her lips to his. "I love you."
"And I love you. All of you."
Gently, he scooted down and lay his head on her stomach, closing his eyes. This, she realised, could very well be the first day of the rest of their lives. She looked down, marvelling at the scene. With her white nightgown bunched around her waist, her husband lay sprawled across her belly. Most of his weight was braced on the side of his body, but his arms were nevertheless wrapped around her abdomen. Content, she stoked his hair until they both drifted into a contented sleep.
Lola looked up when she felt a frisson of awareness dance across her skin. She was being watched. Glancing up from the book she was reading, she saw her husband lounging on the threshold to the library, one shoulder leaning against the doorway, his arms and ankles crossed.
She raised a brow, but smiled invitingly, the book dropping to her lap.
"It's impolite to stare," she reminded him.
"The only thing impolite, were the rather sensual thoughts running through my mind." He pushed away from the doorjamb and entered. Her heart flopped a little. This man, this deeply complex, decidedly gorgeous creature belonged to her. "Well in that case, I approve."
He chuckled loudly and joined her on the sofa. It was well past midday and he was returning from estate business.
"Have you eaten?" she asked, leaning gently into his side. His back was recovering, but he still settled gingerly against the chair. The bandages were now off at night to allow the wounds time to breathe.
"I would love tea with my wife." The sexy drawl she loved was back.
Lola giggled. "Oh really, tea?"
She looked up and his eyes were shining with mirth. "Tea."
He nuzzled her hair and she set the book aside, curling into his side. He kissed the top of her head before saying, "I have to return to court tomorrow. Francis has sent an invitation."
Lola picked at the buttons on the front of his doublet before resting her cheek across his heart. "Do we have to?"
"We?" His brow raised.
"You don't think I'm letting you out of my sight for a minute do you?"
He chuckled and she felt the vibrations on her cheek. "It shouldn't be for more than a day or two."
"I'm loathe to leave our home."
He raised her chin so her head now rested on his shoulder. "Lola?"
The truth, always, she reminded herself. "I feel safe here. We're happy and there's no interference from anyone on how we live our lives or-"
"We have to face the world at some point."
"I know." She sighed heavily, pressing a quick kiss to his jaw, just because it was within reach.
"It does not strike you as odd that you're the one who does not want to go to court?"
"I want to see Jean-Philippe of course, but..."
He shifted, trying to get a better look at her. "What is it?"
"I don't want to lose this. Court has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Everyone there is so unhappy lately. I'm afraid-"
"Lola," he asked, his voice indulgent. "Do you love me?"
Her heart fluttered a bit at his direct, hot gaze. "Yes. Do you love me?"
His lips quirked. "Perhaps."
Lola leaned up and bit his earlobe gently and he chuckled loudly, half amused, half surprised.
"We, you and I, have committed to our family." She liked the sound of that – our family. "Nothing will come between that."
"Promise me," she asked nevertheless, surprised at the level of assurance she needed.
"You are everything to me. I would slay anyone who tried to keep us apart."
A shiver raced down her spine at the edge in his voice. But she accepted his avowal. She pressed her lips to his and within moments the kiss turned hot and passionate. Sliding closer, she wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Good," she whispered. "So would I." She meant it.
"Good Lord Lola! You look marvellous!" Kenna exclaimed.
"Quite," Stéphane drawled in her ear, a possessive arm around her enlarged waistline.
"Lord Narcisse," Kenna said. "It's nice to see you back on your feet."
His brows rose in surprise at her polite statement. "Thank you."
"Mary tells me you will not be at court for more than a day or two. I hope you might have time to take dinner with myself and Bash." She rolled her eyes, muttering in a way that was decidedly Kenna, "That is, if my husband is around to join us."
His eyebrows all but disappeared and Lola intervened, smiling at her friend in appreciation. "We would love that, Kenna. Thank you."
"Right then," said Kenna. "That's settled. Now, news and gossip!"
Stéphane cleared his throat. "My cue to leave." He kissed Lola just below her ear and she shivered, watching him leave.
Mary had entered the hallway where they had parted. He returned. "Majesty." He bowed stiffly.
"Are you on your way to see the King?"
"Lola, please, would you join us?" Mary asked.
"Me?" She frowned at her friend, but Mary already gestured for her to walk alongside her.
Lola looked to Stéphane but he only shrugged his shoulders.
"We'll catch up later," said Kenna as Lola passed.
Taking her husband's arm, they followed the Queen into Francis's chambers. The King was standing, awaiting their arrival it would seem. Lola's hand slipped down Stéphane's arm and reached for his hand. He looked at her, surprised, but she only squeezed his fingers. Lola braced herself. How far they had come, she mused. Whatever her sovereigns and friends wanted from him, they now wanted from them. They would face it together.
"Lord Narcisse," Francis began as Mary moved to his side. "The Queen and I would like to thank you for your service in the name of France. I know that it has been a..." Francis paused, "difficult journey for all of us, but I believe you have proven your loyalty." Lola watched him struggle for a moment. "I once told Lola that she would regret her marriage to you," he said and Lola tightened her hold on Stéphane's hand. "I know I was wrong. I admit I was wrong and happy for once, to be proven thus. And looking at you both now, that has never been more clear."
Stéphane it seemed had been stunned into silence. He recovered, bowing graciously – and sincerely, Lola realised – before straightening. "Thank you, your Majesty."
"I return the lands I took from you and hope Narcisse, that the faith I place in you will be rewarded with loyalty to myself, my family, my crown and the people I care about."
Francis looked to Lola then and she smiled at him, proud of the King who stood before her. She could have no idea of the radiant sight she presented to her King and Queen. She glowed with love and pride, her body soft and rounded. She also would never know the envy both Mary and Francis felt, knowing their own marriage would never produce a similar sentiment ever again.
"I do not know if we will ever truly be friends," Francis said eventually, "But you have proven a worthy advisor. Thank you, for your service."
"I hope you understand, your Majesty, that all the actions I've taken in the past was in the service of France. I accept that the consequences have been... less than desirable, but I avail myself to aid in ensuring that you enjoy a long and successful reign."
"Thank you Lord Narcisse." Mary stepped forward, every inch the regal Queen. "I know it is a cold comfort, but I offer my apologies for the role I played in your son's death. We have all made mistakes. Perhaps now, we can start this alliance anew."
Lola felt Stephane stiffen beside her and shifted closer to him. In this, he had her support.
His voice was rough when he eventually spoke. "It is a hard thing to lose a child. It has taken me a long time to make peace with what happened. But," he looked to Lola briefly, "I also realise in an ironic twist of fate, that everything that happened lead me to this moment. While I wish my son was still alive, I am grateful for my wife and my unborn children." Lola felt tears burn the back of her eyes and blinked. "I accept your apology, your Majesty," he finished.
Francis nodded, done with sentiment. "Right," he said briskly, a little awkward. "I have another matter to attend to. You will both be staying the night?"
Lola nodded.. "Yes, I want to spend some time with Jean-Philippe."
"Good. Join Mary and I for dinner. Both of you." He nodded at Stéphane and left the room. Mary kissed both her cheeks before leaving them too.
"I am not sure if I can comprehend what just happened," Lola said.
"We have another dinner invitation?" he asked.
She jabbed him lightly and he chuckled, still a little dazed himself.
"Well," said Stéphane. "Neither can I. Francis was right. We will never be friends," he said with irony. "But I believe we can work together for the betterment of a country we both love."
"I never thought I would see the day."
"Its all you, you know that, don't you?"
"Me?" Lola scoffed, winding her arms around his neck. "I did nothing."
"You did everything," he said. "You and your unfailing logic and patience, your resilience and love."
"Well," Lola said, brushing her nose against his. "Definitely love."
"Definitely," he drawled as his smiling lips captured hers.
At eight months pregnant, Lola felt ready to burst. She was tired now, most of the time, her body large and cumbersome. Her feet were swollen too and was mortified when she burst into tears one night, convinced that she was fat and utterly unattractive. As a husband and expectant father, Stéphane continued to surprise her. His support and care astounded her with daily frequency, choosing to rub her feet or her back himself instead of having the servants attend to her.
"Why are you smiling?" she'd asked between tears. She hated feeling vulnerable and not in control of herself.
"Because," he soothed, taking her resisting body into his arms. "You are heartbreakingly tempting, even when you're wrestling with unfounded fears." He pressed his lips to her forehead. "You're beautiful. You'll always be beautiful to me. You're carrying my sons."
Her face crumbled again and she pressed into his chest. "Oh God, what if they're not boys?" she wailed.
He laughed then, loud and boisterous. "Then we shall try again."
"Stéphane," she asked, her eyes meeting his, her fear written there. "What if-"
"Lola," he cautioned. "I need heirs. I would love heirs. You know this," he said with candour. "But I've been hated and tortured. And then I've been cared for and loved. I have a profound gratitude to just be alive. Somehow, succession should seem more important now than ever. And yet, I just want our children to be born strong and healthy, regardless of their gender." His arms tightened around her. "And for you to survive it."
His expression had turned dark as he pushed a lock of hair behind her ears. "I cannot lose you. I would not recover."
Lola pressed close to him, closing her eyes and basking in his nearness and the safety she always felt in his arms. Everything, she realised, would be alright.
"Lord Narcisse," Lola heard Mary call outside their bedroom. "You have two healthy children."
"My wife?" His voice was near, but gruff.
Mary must have given him permission because in an instant, the door to their chamber opened and he rushed inside. The minute his eyes met hers, she saw raw emotion reflected back at her. He looked pale and decidedly unlike the calm, always collected aristocrat.
"Come," she said softly. "Come meet them."
The labour had been long and arduous. Jean-Philippe's birth had been a lot easier in comparison, but then again, he had only been one child. She had been sponged and changed, so had the babies before Mary went to fetch Stéphane. Lola signalled to Greer who handed a tiny bundle to him before leaving them. Reverently, his large hands cradled the precious package. Coming to sit beside her, he gently unwrapped the blanket.
"Meet your son." His eyes went to hers and she saw such joy echoed there. "And, your daughter. We have been blessed with one of each," she said. In her arms, an identical bundle mewed softly.
"I was right," Stephane said. "Despite being overjoyed at holding my son, I am equally happy meeting our daughter." His eyes were drawn back to the child in his arms, then hers. "They are strong." She felt her heart expand at the sight of him with his heir.
"Strong and healthy. It is a good sign, especially since they came a little early."
He smirked at her. "Well, they are mine."
Lola rolled her eyes but any other words were stalled when he leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips.
"Thank you. For a man who until very recently had never been in love, I now find my life over run with persons on which to bestow the affection." He reached over and she gently placed the other baby in the crook of his available arm. She committed the moment to memory, knowing she would never forget the love that flooded her chest at the sight of the same emotion mirrored so clearly on his face.
"When I first came to France with Mary," she whispered, "I remember being terrified. It was the first time I was leaving home, with the hopes and dreams of my family resting on my shoulders. The weight of expectation," she grimaced, "and duty, was sometimes so hard to bear alone. And now…"
"You are no longer alone. You will never be alone again. And whatever burdens you bare, we shall shoulder together."
Lola leaned forward and touched his cheek affectionately. "God does work in mysterious ways."
"Indeed. You hated me on sight," he reminded her.
"I didn't hate you." Stéphane raised an amused brow in her direction. "Well, perhaps I didn't like you very much," she conceded.
"My charms of course, were irresistible." Lola laughed as he continued. "But the thing that intrigued you most, was the sex journal." Lola gasped and he smirked, a smile spreading across his face. "Admit it."
"I admit nothing."
"All those sensual delights..."
"That you had engaged in with other women," she replied without jealousy.
"In preparation for you, of course."
"That is no comfort," she shot back, but without heat. The past was the past. They only had the future to look forward to. "Our children need names," she said. "Ideas?"
"Margot," Stephane said without hesitation.
Lola was surprised by his speed. "You've given it some thought."
"It was my mother's name. I loved her, for the short time we had together." Lola pressed her cheek to his shoulder in silent comfort.
"Margot Narcisse. And...?"
"I would not dishonour our son by naming him after my father," he said quietly, looking down at the child. He slept, completely content."What about your father?"
Lola shook her head. "No. That was a different life. I know that names hark to heritage. But-"
"A new start?" he finished, meeting her eyes.
"We could always name him in honour of our King," he drawled. She rolled her eyes, knowing he was not in the least serious. He might have made peace with Francis, but that did not mean he wanted to call his son by the name.
"Christophé," Lola said. "Let's name our son, Christophé."
"Christophé Narcisse. You will get back here immediately!" Lola called. But it was in vain. The boisterous three year old was heading towards the King's chambers at breakneck speed. The guards, already used to the game, opened the door before he proceeded to either knock until someone opened (usually the King) or he called out for his father. Signalling to the children's governess to desist from the chase, Lola went after her son.
The Narcisse family were spending a month at court. It was the first time the twins were away from home for such an extended amount of time. While Margot was easily influenced by her brother's adventurous spirit, she was also swayed by the sight of tea parties and pretty dresses. She was every bit her father's daughter though, able to get Stéphane to bend to her every will. Her favourite memories were of walking into his library at night and finding Margot asleep in his arms as he read a book by the fire. Or waking to find him on the floor of their bedroom, entertaining two toddlers who worshiped him because of the care he lavished upon them. He was determined to be nothing like his own father and worked to earn the love and respect of his children.
Stepping inside the room, her son had already found his target. His father. Shifting her hold on her daughter's hand, Lola apologised.
"Francis, I am sorry."
The King smiled broadly. All these years later, he and Mary had not reconciled. And because of it, he still had only one son. But children brought him great joy and she was sorry about the fact that it seemed like he and Mary would never have any.
"Lord Narcisse and I have concluded our business. I have been asked if I would allow myself to acquiesce to a 'check up'."
Lola rolled her eyes. "He has been spending an extraordinary amount of time with Doctor Chapelle. Every chance he gets his father has to submit to being probed and questioned by a three year old on his apparent symptoms."
"Yes. Last I checked," Stéphane drawled, amused, "I had worms."
Francis laughed. "He has a bright, enquiring mind."
"A quality he has inherited from his mother," Stéphane said, lifting his son into his arms. The resemblance between father and son never failed to stagger her. Twin pairs of blue eyes stared at her and Lola did not have the heart to scold the child.
"Perhaps just before your bedtime young Christophé, I shall avail myself for your expert opinion on my health?" The little boy nodded vigorously and the King shook his hand. "Good boy."
"Me too!" Margot piped up.
"Me too, your Majesty," Lola gently reminded her.
"Me too, your Majesty," she said, beaming at the King.
Francis bent down to eye level, brushing her shiny dark curls behind her ears. She had her mother's generous smile and wide eyes.
"Of course, my dear. You and your brother can each have a turn."
"You are a brave man," Stéphane told Francis. But the pride in his voice was unmistakable.
"And you are a lucky one," the King said, his tone wistful and Lola was sorry for it.
"Lola." Francis kissed her cheek before leaving the family together.
"I hear Mary is leaving for the country again," Stéphane said as he reached for Margot, the little girl willingly launching herself at him. With a mock grunt, he hoisted both his children into his arms.
"Yes," Lola said with a sad smile. "And with Prince Condé."
Stéphane's brow raised but he did not say a word. Instead, he addressed his children. "I think we should go and see the horses? What do you think?"
Christophé yelped his excitement and Margot nodded, her curls bouncing with enthusiasm.
Putting her arm around his waist, they walked towards the stables together. Lola came to realise in the years that followed, that Stéphane Narcisse was every bit as complex as she has initially assumed. Their relationship was not an easy one – they argued and in turn challenged each other with frequency. But those interactions served as a mechanism to solidify their bond. Never was there a more devoted husband or father. Like her, he was determined to cast off the expectation of society, and together, they reared their children with personal care and interest.
They were blessed with a large family. The twins were followed by two more sons and a daughter, their children the source of their combined joy. It was Lola, not a nurse or governess who spent nights awake with them when they were ill. And it was Stéphane who taught them, their sons and daughters, to ride with skill, shoot with precision and hunt with care.
Her life had not turned out the way she had imagined when she'd arrived in France so many years ago. It had turned out even better.
a/n: Thank you to everyone whose read this story. We have reached the end. Let's hope we get some great Lola x Narcisse before the end of the season!