A brilliant sunset lit up the sky as Henry paced the hallway outside the castle's small private chapel, the light casting long, narrow yellow beams across the stonework and setting off its features in sharp-edged shadows. His stomach fluttered, and he kept looking towards the heavy doors at the end of the hallway, where Danielle would soon appear.
So soon! Any moment now. He exhaled a chuckle of disbelief, then glanced towards where his father sat on a bench, frowning, as usual. Henry looked away quickly and tried to take an interest in a carving that hung on the wall, but his eyes slid off its contours without taking any notice of them. He didn't truly believe that his father would rescind his permission for the union, but with the king, one never knew; his moods could swing with the slightest breeze. At such a critical juncture, it was best not to draw his attention.
So Henry paced quietly, trying to calm the eager roiling in his belly. What was Danielle thinking right now? Did she regret accepting his offer so quickly? This was all happening, and within a matter of only a few hours! They had met for the first time just over a week ago, and now he was irrevocably joining the rest of his life to hers. She was his match, yes, but to take this step seemed a kind of joyful madness. He had expected to encounter more resistance to his proposal for an immediate wedding, and had spent the remainder of the ride home silently rehearsing his arguments, but the afternoon had spun by with surprising ease. When the rescue party had returned to the castle, Henry had had a guardsman quietly escort Danielle through a side-entrance, and they had met up again in the family's private apartments. She had protested this arrangement, not wanting to be introduced to his parents looking as she did, but Henry had insisted, confident that her appearance wouldn't matter to them.
Indeed, their greeting had warmed him through with relief and pride. His father had been eager to meet Danielle, the woman who had prompted such a profound change in his son, and the older man had spoken to her with gentle solicitousness. Henry had been equally delighted to see his mother, always the gracious queen, treat his chosen bride as kindly as if Danielle really were the noblewoman who had held the court in thrall of such a mystery, despite her unwashed hair and her stained fingers. He had been right; Danielle already held their respect and even a cautious measure of love.
Once Henry had explained how thoroughly he was to blame for the whole matter, and the three of them had managed to extract Danielle's entire story from her, there was no question of whether they ought to proceed with the marriage. In fact, while Danielle was resting, before she would be bathed and fitted for a suitable gown, Henry and his parents hatched a plan to deal with the Baroness de Ghent and her daughters. That is, until Laurent pointed out that the younger daughter, Jacqueline, was a kind soul and undeserving of punishment. That Laurent, the inveterate bachelor, should have not only noticed the young woman, but also been willing to oppose the royal family in disposing of her, prompted some ribbing on Henry's part.
All sorted itself out in due course, Cardinal de Retz was summoned, and Henry soon found himself, for the second time in one day, preparing to be pledged in marriage. This time, however, rather than feeling as though he had a belly full of rocks and was faintly sick, he was instead pacing from one end of the hallway to the other in nervously eager anticipation.
An hour earlier, his mother had appeared with instructions for his valets on how he ought to be dressed for the private ceremony. There was more latitude without a crowd to please, and as Danielle's wedding gown would be only of a usual daily sort, common amongst the courtiers, it was decided that his own dress should be equivalent. He was relieved to be free of the heavy cape that he had been forced to drag about during the morning's dreadful show. After some hurried discussions between two of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting and one of his valets, they had selected a deep emerald doublet, tucked him into it, and, just before sundown, deposited him in the hallway outside the castle's small private chapel.
The cardinal was waiting inside, ready for the ceremony to begin. Henry glanced out a window as he paced past it again, barely taking note of the impressive array of pink and orange hues that lit the clouds.
"Sit down, son," Francis commanded. "You're making me weary just watching you."
Henry found a seat and obeyed, but he only managed about five seconds of stillness before popping up again. Leonardo, watching from a bench nearby, chuckled.
"Oh, for God's sake—" Henry's father began, but quickly shut his mouth when the cardinal poked his head out of the chapel door with a look of righteous rebuke on his face. Francis glanced away, his jaw working.
"Night is nearly upon us," Cardinal de Retz observed, in a slightly peevish tone.
"What, God will not honor a marriage begun in the dark?" Leonardo asked, a teasing light in his eyes.
"My supper grows cold," de Retz replied.
Henry shot the older man a look of annoyance. Francis only harrumphed.
"This is all highly irregular," de Retz began, returning Henry's annoyed glance, but just then the heavy doors at the end of the hallway scraped open, and all four men turned to face the new arrivals.
Henry's mother stood in the doorway, and she made a quick hurrying motion with her hands, waving them all into the chapel. Why were they lounging about in the hall?
His heart thudding in his ears, Henry quickly followed the cardinal and his father inside the room. Candles placed about filled the small space with flickering yellow light. It gave the room an intimate feel and, in contrast to the impersonal pomp of the morning's aborted ceremony, when half of the cathedral had been filled with complete strangers, in this familiar place Henry felt something ease in his chest. Leonardo came in behind them and gave him an encouraging smile, and Henry returned it with genuine feeling.
There was no choir this time, only the soft swish of fabric on stone, and the footfalls of the women as they approached the chapel entrance. Henry turned to face Cardinal de Retz and stilled, straining to listen as Danielle drew near.
He could bear the wait no longer; he turned, and there she was, all loveliness and a glowing smile meant just for him. He warmed, and an answering smile bubbled out of him. How vast a difference from this morning! Yes, this was right, this was the sacrament, the holy thing, the brush with the divine. All the heavy finery and the hollow charade of the first ceremony paled to nothing. When Danielle stepped up beside him and the priest began to intone the words, Henry was filled with a rush of gratitude. He offered up a wordless prayer of thanks, and when the moment came to kneel and bow their heads, it was no longer a merely prescribed movement, but a true devotion. For the first time in his adult life, he believed.
The words flowed over and around him with their vague familiarity, when he did understand the snatches of Latin that he ought to have learned as a boy. He glanced across at Danielle and saw a look of quiet devotion in her expression, and to his chagrin, complete understanding of the cardinal's words; how anyone could have ever thought her a common servant was laughable. Henry looked back at de Retz, eager for the ceremony to reach its conclusion.
At each point, Henry made the movements and spoke the words that he had rehearsed for a different woman, but now he said them with joyful intent. Each word brought him one step closer to Danielle. When he slid the ring over her work-callused finger, it caught a bit and he swallowed, thinking of what a fool he'd been to try to give a ring meant for a privileged princess's slim fingers to a woman who had spent her life doing manual labour, but Danielle only chuckled and reached down to firmly twist it into place.
At long last de Retz finished guiding them through the recitations, responses, and prayers. He turned to Henry with a beneficent smile and said, "You may kiss your bride."
Henry looked, and Danielle, his Danielle, was glowing. Her eyes and her smile were bright, and the candlelight caught in the gleam of her upswept hair. Suffused with delight, he reached down to take both of her hands in his own. He tugged her gently towards him and bent, finding her lips. Her soft touch met his with equal pressure, and as they tasted one another—this is just the beginning, their motions promised—Henry felt her sigh. He breathed in her breath, and something inside of him broke, bringing tears to his eyes. When she pulled back and caught sight of them, he smiled, a deep smile that welled up from his soul, and her own eyes glistened with happiness.
"I love you," he whispered.
"And I love you," she replied.
They giggled then, giddy, and she squeezed his hands. He kissed her again.
"Get a room, you two," Leonardo called out, and they collapsed into soft laughter, blushing as they turned to face the small group of witnesses in the chapel.
The Queen was freely wiping at her eyes, making no pretense of hiding her tears.
The King gave a satisfied nod, his gaze holding Henry's for a heartbeat, and Henry nodded back, mouthing a silent Thank you.
"Let's eat," his father said. "I'm starving."
"Oh, Francis," Marie protested, but she put that aside when Danielle approached, and she hugged the younger woman before standing back and regaining her composure. "I'm sure you must be hungry, my dear. I've made arrangements for supper to be served in Henry's rooms."
"In Henry's—?" the king began, but his wife only gave him a quelling look.
"Our supper will be served in our rooms."
"But what about our honoured guest?" Francis protested, waving his hands vaguely in Da Vinci's direction. "Is he to eat alone?"
"Oh, I ate down in the kitchens hours ago," Leonardo replied, smirking. He stepped up to the new couple and embraced them both, then stood back with a satisfied grin. "I'll stop back in for a snack and then I'm going to spend the rest of the evening working on my wedding present."
"Oh!" Danielle pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes going wide. Then, dropping her hand, she said, "You're making something for us?"
"Of course!" Leonardo replied, waving her off and starting to stride out of the chapel. "It's what I do. Besides, it's a lot less expensive than trying to buy a gift suitable for the Dauphin."
The royal family chuckled as they watched him leave. Turning, Marie raised her eyebrows meaningfully at her husband, who blinked in confusion, then made a quick noise and nodded. Smiling in a charming fashion, the king stepped up beside Danielle and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Come, my dear, let me show you the way to your new apartments."
Danielle glanced back at Henry in surprise, and he, too, moved to make a protest, but Marie quickly put her hand on his chest. She smiled at her new daughter-in-law.
"We'll be right behind you," the queen explained. "May a mother have one final walk with her son?"
"Of course," Danielle answered, smiling and relaxing again. With a warm flash of her eyes at Henry, Danielle went out of the chapel on his father's arm, and was soon laughing at something the older man had said.
"What's this about, Mother?" Henry asked, but she only shook her head at him, her eyes flickering towards Cardinal de Retz, and Henry nodded.
"Indulge an old woman," Marie said clearly, not looking old in the least. "I simply wanted to spend a few final moments with my son before he begins his life as a married man."
"How could I refuse?" Henry asked with a smile, escorting her out of the chapel. They walked down the hall slowly, and when Danielle and his father had rounded a corner ahead, Henry's mother turned to him, her expression now serious, and pressed her hand to his arm.
"She did not tell us her whole story this afternoon, Henry."
He frowned, pausing beside her. "What do you mean?"
His mother glanced up and down the hallway; they were alone. She looked at him, her brows furrowed. "Annette said that—" The skin around his mother's eyes tightened. "—there are some terrible marks."
A tight fist squeezed Henry's gut. "'Terrible marks'? What do you mean? Did Le Pieu—"
"I don't know, Henry. Danielle wished to dress herself, and Annette only saw the marks briefly, as Danielle was stepping out of her bath. I was not in the room at the time, and I could hardly insist that the poor girl show them to me. But she has been badly abused."
His mother's grip on his arm tightened. "You must be gentle, my dear, do you understand?"
He gave her an incredulous look. "What do you take me for?"
She glanced away from him, a shadow passing over her face, and then she pressed her lips together in a tight smile, patting his arm before drawing her hand away. They began to walk again.
"I know you are a good man." Her expression softened. "So is your father. But all men—all women—can make mistakes. Particularly in circumstances such as these. Please promise that you will be gentle with her."
"I promise," Henry answered, an unpleasant suspicion roiling in his stomach. He looked down at his mother's profile and saw her not as the Queen, nor merely as his mother, but as a woman. The sensation unsettled him. "I promise I always will be."
She smiled up at him. "I know you will."
They rounded the corner and mounted the stairs to the family's private wing, and Henry wondered what he would discover. He had believed Danielle when she'd told him that Le Pieu hadn't violated her, but what would he find tonight? What had she hidden from him?
Henry paused on the curving stair and his mother paused a step higher, looking back at him in surprise.
"Do you have any other advice for me, Mother?"
She smiled. "For marriage in general, or for tonight in particular?"
Henry chuckled, glancing away self-consciously before meeting her eyes again. "Both...either."
Marie pursed her lips. "Your father explained the necessities, I take it?"
Henry made a face. "Oh, God, yes. When I was thirteen."
"Good. Then I shan't belabour that. Regarding marriage—and this applies to tonight as well—take the time to understand each other." Marie smiled. "She is a wise young woman. You've made an excellent choice."
"Thank you, Mother."
She drew him into a hug and he grinned as he released her.
"I look forward to getting to know her," his mother said, lifting her skirts as they continued up the winding staircase. "I suspect she will be a great comfort to us all."
"Yes," Henry sighed happily. But then he thought of the 'terrible marks' and his stomach tightened again. Tonight, it was his job to comfort Danielle, and he hoped he was up to the task.
They heard his father laughing—when was the last time Henry had heard his father laugh so freely?—and as they approached Henry's rooms, his mother touched his arm.
"Don't be afraid, son. She is strong. You'll do fine. Now, the servants will not enter your bedroom at the usual hour tomorrow morning. They won't enter until you ring. You may request that breakfast be served in your rooms, or you may request your valets and join your father for breakfast in the hall. Danielle will take breakfast in bed, just as I do. We will convene in the smaller hall at noon, for the presentation and then the judgement. For the remainder of this week, you will not be required to attend any of the usual functions, although we do ask that you take supper with us on Friday, and that you attend church on Sunday morning. Your usual responsibilities will resume on Monday. Do you have any questions?"
"May we leave the palace?"
"At will," his mother replied. "As long as you bring Laurent and his men with you."
"Good luck, my dear." She pressed a kiss to his cheek, then clasped her hands and stood back with a smile. Swallowing, he stepped up to his door and pushed it open.
"—that I am sure you understand," Danielle finished, and King Francis nodded.
"Yes, my dear, when you put it that way. I shall give the matter some thought. Oh, Henry! Your new wife is already pleading the cause of the unjustly accused."
Henry grinned. "Be careful, Father. That is how she won my heart. You don't stand a chance against her."
Francis chuckled. "I'm beginning to suspect that."
Danielle smiled demurely, although the light in her eyes was quite wicked. Henry smirked at her.
"Well," his father said, suddenly looking self-conscious. He clapped his hands against his sides and turned. "I'll...leave you to it."
As Henry went to stand beside her, his father walked to the door. He gave Henry one last tight-lipped smile, and then he was gone.
Henry swallowed before turning to look at Danielle. His gaze travelled over her lips, her rosy cheeks, and up to her hair before coming to rest on her keen eyes. Her earlier humour had fallen away, however; now she looked nervous. He stepped close to her and put his hands on her upper arms, pressing a patient kiss to her forehead. Sighing, she sank into his embrace and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"I cannot believe that this moment is real," she murmured.
He chuckled and cupped the back of her head. "Believe it."
They stood quietly together for a minute, just breathing, and then he pulled away, glancing at the small table that stood beside the fireplace. There were several covered dishes on it, along with two goblets and a pitcher. "Are you hungry?"
"Not really," Danielle replied, swallowing. "Are you?"
He looked back at her, sliding his hands up to cradle either side of her head. "Not for food."
She smiled, but there was a flicker of something in her eyes, so he relaxed his grip, letting his hands come to rest on her shoulders instead.
"I—" She blinked, frowned, looked back up at him. "I want to give myself to you."
"There's no hurry," he said. "I didn't mean to rush you."
"No," she answered, reaching up to take his hands when he started to draw them away. "I don't want to wait. I'm ready."
He searched her eyes, but there was only a firm determination in them, and after a moment of holding his gaze, she smiled. He let out a shaky laugh.
"Are you certain?" he asked.
She pressed up on her toes and pulled him down for a kiss, startling him with a stroke of her tongue; it was the first time either of them had tried it. He laughed against her lips and opened his mouth to let her in, meeting her every thrust and parry. Still kissing her, he bent to pick her up and she giggled softly as their lips broke apart.
"Twice in one day?" she murmured, when he had lifted her up. Her fingers began idly stroking his hair back. She suddenly captured his earlobe between her lips, sucking playfully on it and, surprised, he nearly tripped on his way to the bed, only barely managing to deposit her there.
"Hey," he protested, crouching over her. "You're heavy, you know."
She only laughed and tugged him down until he acquiesced, making a kind of mocking leap as he vaulted over her to land on the bed. Still laughing, she rolled into him—and banged his nose with her crown. He reeled back, clutching his face and blinking through the red sparks blooming in his vision.
"Oh! Oh, I'm so sorry!" She had one hand on her crown and the other held out, fluttering near his face.
He rubbed his nose, wincing at her through the tears in his eyes. She finally began to giggle softly, and he lay back gingerly on the bed with a rueful chuckle.
When the worst of the pain had passed, he sat up. "All right, the first order of business, my newly-minted princess..." He blinked, rubbing the tender bridge of his nose. "...is to dispose of all the potentially-lethal items you're wearing."
"Only me?" she protested. "You're wearing one, too."
"That's true," he said, "but I have had years of experience learning how not to wound people with it."
"There's a metaphor in there somewhere," Danielle observed.
"Possibly," Henry replied with a grin, and when he reached up to touch her crown, she stilled before him. "But right now, I am not a prince. I'm just Henry, your husband, a man very much in love—" She smiled. "—whose nose is smarting like the devil."
She dropped her head with a chagrined smile, and kept it down long enough to allow him to work the fine metal circlet out of her braids. Looking at her tightly-bound hair, as lovely as the style was, gave him an idea. He slid off the bed and set her crown down on the shelf beside his armoire, then put his own beside it.
Turning back, he paused. She was kneeling on his bed, her legs tucked beneath her, the flickering orange firelight dancing on her features, and a gentle smile on her face as she watched him. He imagined her sitting there, her long hair loose instead...and far more casually dressed. He did not seem to be alone in his thoughts, however: her eyes travelled slowly over his body. He took his time in returning to her, allowing her to enjoy the view, and when he finally settled down beside her again, she smirked.
"You think a great deal of yourself, don't you?"
"Don't you?" he asked.
She batted his arm and he laughed, but when she looked at him, her expression had grown serious.
"I do," she answered. "You are beautiful. Every time I see you, you take my breath away."
He didn't know what to say, so he reached up and cupped her cheek, drawing her mouth to his for a long, tender, grateful kiss.
"That I should be so fortunate..." she breathed, when they parted. "I cannot imagine what I have done to deserve such a blessing from God."
"And here I am, asking myself the same thing," he said, "only with much more reason to think myself undeserving."
"Yes, well..." She smirked. "I won't argue with that."
"You—" he said with a grin, and kissed her again. She moved to be closer to him and ran her hands up into his hair, tugging on it. The motion tilted his head back, and as she had risen up on her knees, he submitted to her passion, opening his mouth with a groan. At the sound, her kiss became more insistent and he wrapped an arm around her for balance, using his other arm to brace himself on the bed.
"It's not fair," he gasped, when she finally allowed him to come up for air.
She frowned. "What isn't?"
"I can't do the same to you."
Her eyebrows twitched in confusion, until he reached up to run a finger along her braids.
"Oh," she said. "Yes, of course. Would you help me?"
"I'd be delighted," he replied with a grin. "What should I do?"
And so they spent the next few minutes pulling out hairpins and untying threads, unwinding the strands until all of her hair was loosed from its bonds.
She put the handful of accoutrements on the shelf beside their crowns and ran her fingers self-consciously through her hair. "I don't have a brush."
"Do you need one?" he asked. She looked utterly entrancing to him; he couldn't get enough of the silky feel of her hair. He lifted a handful of it to press it to his nose, and she gave him an odd look. "What?"
"Never mind," she replied, stepping up to him as he let the locks fall from his fingers. "No, I don't. Now do I get to choose how to next reduce your state of dress?"
He grinned. "I am but your servant, milady. Choose at will."
"This, I think," she decided, a smile playing on her lips as she ran her finger down the front of his doublet. He nodded and reached up for the buttons. "No," she said, brushing his hands aside, and his heart began to pound as her hands moved steadily down his chest, undoing each fastening, until the stiff fabric finally parted. Her mouth fell open slightly and she reached up to slowly slide her hands over the exposed linen shirt. When her palms brushed along his stomach, he realised he was holding his breath and released it. Her arms bumped against the doublet, so he quickly shrugged it off, tossing it aside. She smiled and tugged at his shirt, pulling it out of his breeches, and he laughed.
"You're no blushing bride, are you?"
She made a face. "Did you think I would be?"
"The woman who, at our first meeting, threw apples at my head? No. And I love you for it. But..." He grasped her elbows, causing her to still her hands. "I can't help feeling that you're...rushing, to cover your fear."
She glanced down. "A little." Looking up again, she grinned. "But the rest is because I just want more. Do you mind?"
"No, not at all. Not..." He kissed her. "...at..." He ran his hands up into her hair and—gently—tugged her head back and to the side, exposing her throat, then bent to trail his lips over the soft skin under her jaw until he reached her ear. "...all." Her hands had fisted in his shirt, gripping it for balance, and her breath caught in small ways as he moved, until she shivered at his final word. He smiled as he drew back.
Her eyes still closed, she said faintly, "I see why you liked that."
He laughed. "Yes. All right, it's my turn now."
She dimpled and picked up her skirts in a dainty fashion, turning to let him select the next garment. Her hair swayed with her movements, and he reached out to let it slip through his fingers as it went by. Then, humming in mock-serious thought, he turned her until he found the ties running down the back of her dress.
"Here?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered, gathering her hair and pulling it over one shoulder. Her tone had shifted subtly; for all their playfulness, there was a serious edge to the moment and Henry paused, his fingers on the topmost leather string. He bent to gently press his lips to the spot where her neck met her shoulder. When she only gave a soft sigh, he tugged the strings loose, then paused again to watch her. Her shoulders remained relaxed, so he continued until he had pulled all of the ties free, and the only things keeping her overdress on were the shoulder-pieces. Should he tug them off?
She answered his question by tugging them off herself, turning to look at him as she did, and he swallowed, watching the shimmering green fabric pool at her feet.
She wore a gold-embroidered white bodice that was tightly laced up the front, and she began to undo the ties, her fingers trembling slightly. Now it was his turn to brush her hands away. He stepped up to her and began to tug at the laces, pulling each one loose from the top to the bottom. His breath caught at how the shape of her bosom changed as he freed her from the constricting garment. When she shrugged out of the bodice, his eyes were drawn to how her body moved, and he reached up—
With an air of practicality, seeming unaware of his gesture, she gathered up the dress and the bodice to drape them carefully over a nearby armchair. She now wore only a chemise and pantaloons, and when she turned back to him, her gaze fell and her eyebrows rose, her mouth making a small 'oh'.
He blinked, then followed her gaze. His erection was quite obvious; he adjusted himself before raising his eyes to hers.
She swallowed as he came near, and suddenly all teasing was at an end. She reached for his waist and he bent to cup her face, and they kissed with quiet intent. When he drew back, he kept his eyes fixed on hers, but moved his hand down until he found the swell of her breast. Her eyes closed and her mouth fell open—his did, as well, as the soft, pliable weight fit so perfectly in his palm—and he kissed her again, trying to remind himself to be gentle, yet afire with a kind of madness that resisted restraint.
They bumped against the corner of the armchair and changed the angle of their kiss, stepping in a rush until he was pressing her against the armoire, the whole of his body against the entire length of hers. They groaned together and she broke the kiss, her hands digging into his back as he bent to lick the hollow above her collarbone, pushing aside the neck of her chemise and exposing one lovely shoulder. He dragged his open mouth over the smooth flesh as he pressed himself more firmly against her. There was too much—too much fabric in the way—he drew back with a gasp when he felt her warm palms sliding up under his shirt.
He pulled it over his head, then returned to kissing her again, gathering up the folds of her chemise, but she pushed him away and he drew back with a frown—only to smile when he realised that she had just wanted to look at him. She ran her hands over his chest hair, brushing it with her fingertips, her eyes glowing with delight, until he could stand it no longer and pulled her into another kiss.
She broke it and raised her arms, allowing him to gather up the long garment and lift it over her head, until—dear God—she was the most magnificent creature!
He reached up to cup her breasts in his hands, humming his appreciation of their perfection. Finally, he sank to one knee, reverent, and pressed his mouth to a swell, glorying in its warmth and softness, its roundness, its...Danielle-ness. He turned to kiss the other, closing his eyes. Chuckling softly, she ran her hands into his hair and tilted his head back until he was looking up at her. She was grinning broadly and he laughed, then moved to hold her as he straightened up, his arms encircling her. His palms slid up her back—
—and caught on something.
Something that ought not to be there.
Her gaze flickered with confusion, then suddenly went quite carefully blank, and she resisted when he tried to turn her.
"No—Henry, please. It's—"
"Let me see."
Her brows furrowed. "It's nothing."
"I want to see."
She pressed her lips together, then finally gave a faint nod and turned her head to the side. Reluctantly, she gathered her hair and pulled it over her shoulder as she slowly turned.
These were the 'terrible marks'.
Her back was crisscrossed with pink welts, some darker red than others. The wounds had closed and were healing well, but their edges were unmistakeable. They marred her otherwise perfect back.
"I'll run him through," Henry hissed.
"No, don't—" Danielle put out a hand, turning her head. "It wasn't Le Pieu."
"Who was it?" Henry asked through clenched teeth.
Danielle shook her head. "It doesn't matter."
Henry's stomach churned and his heart twisted; he cradled her body with one arm and ran his finger over the awful lines with his free hand. "Yes, it does. I will make them pay."
"No," Danielle said, and turned into his embrace, drawing the wounds away from his touch. She reached up and took his face between her hands. "No, it doesn't. They will heal. In time, they will disappear."
"Not completely," he answered. "Scars such as those remain."
"They have ceased to hurt," she said simply. "Don't reopen them."
He glared down at her—not angry at her, but filled with fury—until the firm light in her gaze finally broke through his wrath. Tears rose in his eyes. Dear God, this woman! He had never met anyone like her, and he loved her fiercely. He wrapped his arms around her, feeling the welts against his forearms, and buried his face in her hair. He had failed to protect her, the woman he loved. What was his position worth, if he couldn't do even so simple a thing?
Leonardo's words suddenly echoed in his ears, ringing out with a stinging lash:
Have you any idea what that girl went through to get here tonight?
Henry knew who had beaten her. A cold fury pulsed through him—but it was a mixture of anger at that cruel bitch of a woman and anger at himself. He'd been such a self-absorbed fool...
He drew back and met Danielle's soft gaze. "When?"
Her eyes flickered away and her face tightened. "After we spent the night with the gypsies, I returned home so late that I slept past dawn..."
"She beat you for that?"
"No," Danielle replied. "But I was late with all the chores and the day just kept going from bad to worse." Her hands tightened against his skin. "Then I discovered her and Marguerite with my mother's wedding dress and shoes, and I was so angry, I hit Marguerite—"
Henry laughed. "So that was the terrible black eye Mother said Marguerite had at luncheon!"
Danielle pressed her lips together. "Yes. Well, I shouldn't have hit her."
"She deserved it!"
"Very much, but it was...unwise to provoke her." Danielle's eyes filled with a renewed pain and her gaze fell to Henry's chest. "...and then the Baroness had me beaten for it. A few hours later, when I could bear to wear a dress, I came to meet you."
Henry frowned. Danielle had come to see him at the ruins at Amboise that afternoon, but she hadn't seemed injured—
His mouth fell open. She had cried out when he had tried to embrace her!
It had been a cry of pain. He'd thought there was a note to it, but he hadn't understood. He had been so caught up in his own joy that he had just let her flee, again, back to that awful place.
He knew the moment that she could see the dawning awareness in his eyes, because she reached for him, and there were now tears in her eyes, as well.
He pulled her close and kissed her, answering her unspoken request, and ran his hands up into her hair. He would not reopen her wounds; they were hers to close. But he swore silently to himself that the Baroness would pay.
But later. He would think on that later. For now, tonight, in this moment, he was Danielle's and no one else's. He would serve her to the best of his ability. If this was what she wanted, then this was what he would give.
And this was what she wanted, for she kissed him with a kind of hard desperation and he matched her. They tugged off each other's remaining clothing and he led her to the bed. Her body trembled, but the fire in her eyes burned steadily and she would not allow him to pause or be too gentle. Her fingernails dug into his back, her strong arms and legs wrapping around him, and he held her tightly in return. They kissed and stroked, gasping out one another's names, grasping flesh and pressing hard. He let his passion carry him, and he didn't pause to question hers. They fumbled, grunted, and found one another again, wordlessly forgiving the awkwardness as they learned.
When the moment came, he met her eyes and she nodded, spreading her legs to receive him.
She was so wet, dripping with it, and he gave a soft laugh, delighted and amazed. When he touched her, she moaned and moved against his hand, her undulations driving him wild. She wanted him inside her, he could feel it, and he wished for nothing more than to satisfy her. He found her, and pushed—his first thrust caught, and she gave a small cry, but he withdrew, learned, tried again, and this time he slid into her with such ease that he sank all the way to the hilt and gave an involuntary, guttural moan of surprise.
Her own deep moan matched his and he bent his head to kiss her, hard. She wrapped her legs around his hips and grasped his buttocks, pulling him in deeper, and he grinned. Yes, he could do this. Yes, he wanted to. Yes, she wanted him to! Yes. Yes. Yes.
They rocked together without restraint until he felt himself going over the edge and he arched back, losing himself in her body, a wordless exclamation of pleasure and gratitude and relief, of utter release, escaping his lips. His body thrust of its own accord until he was spent, and then he groaned, collapsing onto her.
She grunted, her breath forced out of her lungs, and she pushed up at him. He wearily lifted himself with a little noise of apology—of course, I'm sorry—and when she had drawn in a full breath and pulled him back down, he sank with a grateful sigh.
His heart was pounding, his skin flushed and tingling, and he was filled with the deepest satisfaction, a luxuriant relaxation suffusing his entire being. She breathed beneath him, warm and trembling, and pressed her lips to his shoulder.
"I love you," she murmured.
He exhaled a soft laugh and slowly turned his head to kiss her cheek. "I love you. Ohhh..." he sighed, his eyes falling closed again. Husband and wife. One flesh. He understood it now. He cared for her body at least as much as he cared for his own. Just the thought of her in pain made something twist inside of him. And seeing her pleasure only heightened his own. Yes.
She tightened around him and, startled, he lifted his head with a sharp gasp, only relaxing when she did.
"Oh—I'm sorry—" she said quickly, her hands fluttering on his back. "I didn't mean to do that. It's just..."
When she didn't finish speaking, he opened his eyes and looked at her, idly rubbing his thumb on her shoulder. His fingers slid over her sweat-dampened skin. He didn't want to leave her just yet, but if she was uncomfortable...
"It's just what?" he asked, propping himself up on his elbows and smiling down at her. Her hair was splayed across the pillow, surrounding her head with a light brown halo. He loved the heightened colour in her skin, and the full, red curve of her lips. Seeing her roused in this fashion, mussed and taken, filled him with a deep pride and affection. He was thoroughly satisfied, and given how passionately she had taken him in, surely she must be, as well. He kissed her, long and slow this time, and she held him tightly, kissing him back.
There was something hungry in her kiss, and when her body tightened around his again, he had to gasp and break away. His body was still too sensitive; he couldn't remain inside, so he withdrew.
She made a small sound of disappointment. "What's wrong?" she asked, her voice very small, and he focused on her, sliding back up beside her and settling down. He gave her a reassuring smile and stroked at the hair that lay damp against her temple.
"Nothing is wrong," he answered. "Nothing at all."
"Oh," she sighed, and rolled into his arms, burying her face against his chest. He couldn't quite name it, but he had the distinct sense that she was hiding something.
He stroked her hair, trying to encourage her to pull back. "Are you...all right?"
She nodded quickly and looked up at him. "Are you? I didn't hurt you?"
He chuckled. "No."
"But you seemed to be in pain..."
He stroked her cheek and gave her a lopsided smile. "A mild discomfort only." When the uncertain look remained in her eyes, he frowned and glanced down between them—
There was blood on the sheets.
It wasn't his blood, surely. A quick check confirmed it, and then he vaguely recalled his father once mentioning something about how to tell when a woman was a virgin, and he relaxed back. Le Pieu couldn't cause any trouble now. Smiling, Henry reached out to gently cradle Danielle's hip with one hand and he met her gaze.
"I'm sorry," he said, his smile falling away. "I wasn't thinking—I should have realised." He swallowed. "Does it hurt?"
She shook her head and sat up to inspect everything. "No. It looks much worse than it feels." Something passed over her face then, but she didn't continue.
"What? What is it?" he pressed her, but she only smiled at him and gingerly climbed off the bed, tugging at the sheets as she went. He quickly rolled off and helped her gather them up, then pointed to the corner of the room where he always tossed his clothes for his valet to pick up later.
She gave a slight shake of her head. "I'll need a moment, my lord."
Then, carefully walking with the armload of fabric, she disappeared round the corner that led into her own bedroom. Henry considered following her but, glancing down at himself, he realised that a bit of a wash wouldn't be amiss. He picked up the ewer and wet a cloth.