Disclaimer: I do not own these marvelous boys.


Chapter One

All the Pretty Little Horses


Véronique-Élise Auclair gathered her pale yellow skirts around her knees, leaving her naked calves and feet bared for all who might see. She slipped between the rails of the fence gate, her partly plated dark curls falling about her shoulders. Righting herself, she pushed the thick mass back over her shoulder, one long piece getting caught in the small square cut emerald always present on her left hand. She paused long enough to untangle it and to squat down and gather her discarded stockings and shoes, muddying one of her white linen sleeves in the process. Shrugging in exasperation, she sighed, her small feet padding across the thick grass as she started toward the house still another small pasture and fence line away. She supposed the mud on her sleeve matched the spattering on her skirts and her dark red bodice.

She was a woman grown and a widow and yet she knew her mother would still chastise her like a child if she saw her bare feet or muddied clothes. It was but for the grace of God, her mother would not know the how or the why and would only see the outcome. And that was only if she didn't make it to her room quickly enough, Véronique amended. There would be no forgiveness if Madame la Baronne knew either the how or the why. Véronique had gone to find Samson after breakfast this morning, just as she always did either before or after. She could keep him in the stable with the other family horses or in the paddock directly behind it but she rarely did. Greedy as the great beast usually was for his morning oats, she rarely had to stray so far afield to find him. She had found him, which led to the why. That being, why not try riding him bareback again; there was no one around to see. This led to the how - or were the how and the why really one and the same, Véronique was really unsure. She just knew the how of her skirts being dirty was Samson had had other ideas that led to Véronique setting on a tender derrière, splattered with mud, and a happy and free Samson galloping across the field.

Véronique cast an almost superstitious eye toward the towering three story structure still several yards away. It was made from yellow stone quarried from these same hills she called home. And the great house at Acre had stood as it did, enduring and proud against the verdant green of the rolling hills of Lyon, for generations. Light blue shutters lined rows of floor to ceiling windows encased in white frames, heavy black tiles covered the sloping hip roof. In the morning, the sandstone caught the first rays of the sun, turning it warm and powdery to the touch. On the opposite side from her approach, the drive passed through a large gate, leaving the towering trees behind to reveal the aspect of a pond bordered by manicured gardens that led up to a wide veranda on the eastern side.

In his youth, her father had traveled abroad and he always said he had seen nothing there to compare to the beauty of his home; his Acre. Véronique had never traveled further away than Paris and her grandfather's palatial estate near Le Mans. Between the two, the trips did not total more than six in her twenty two years, but she had to admit she was partial to home as well. Her mother Henriette, Madame la Baronne de Lyon, was every inch a lady to the manor born. She had been raised to be a great lady and run such an estate, both of which her mother managed beautifully. Véronique had learned to run an estate but had never been patient enough to learn to be proficient in needle point, yet she had excelled in learning Latin and even Greek and had been fascinated by her father's horses. Her mother had taught her to read and write both languages and Madame could ride as well as was expected, but she had never understood Véronique's fascination with knowing as much as her father did about the animals he bred and Acre itself. Véronique was also certain her mother's silk skirts had not seen a speck of mud since they had come to live in her wardrobe. She was equally as certain there were not any made out the same serviceable wool that Véronique herself wore at present. No, that would be a little too common.

Madame ma Mère had not only had strict rules for behavior but had always appeared to have an almost supernatural ability to know when Véronique was "in a state."

Véronique reached the next gate, absentmindedly opening it instead of slipping between its rails.

As a child, Véronique had envisioned her mother as a proper French général, patrolling the large upstairs windows with a spyglass, awaiting her return so she could imprison her in the hidden room behind the kitchen. That was not to say her mother ever did shut her in that room, but it had amused Véronique to imagine it. She also would not be surprised to find out her mother had contemplated it.

Véronique had even called her mother "Le Général". But in truth and with years separating her from her childhood, Véronique could understand: she had been so cosseted because she had been so sick. But Véronique's restless young spirit had only known her want to be free; not a mother's fear of losing a child whose heart was weakened by fever.

They had constantly been at odds then and still "butted heads," as her father said to this day, despite that her childhood maladies had long since stopped plaguing her.

Véronique arrived at the gate in the ivy covered wall of the kitchen garden. Reaching over it, she undid the rough iron latch. The smell of fresh herbs and pears from the garden and bread baking from within the kitchen instantly surrounded her. Véronique stepped off the cobbled path that led to the door, grabbing a crockery bowl covered in cheese cloth. Their cook had left it sitting on a workbench this morning, so the honey contained within could drip from its comb.

XXX

Today, Le Général's anxiousness had less to do with Véronique's tendencies and more to do with the expected company. They had received a message two days ago informing them that a distant cousin of her father's was being sent by the King to procure a horse for the Queen.

Véronique's father, Philippe, might be of noble birth, but had never cared for the society to which he was born. This meant he rarely visited Paris, even now that one of his eldest daughters lived there and his only son spent a great deal of time there as well. Philippe de Lyon preferred the quietness of home. He was however known for the horses he bred. A hobby that had made him one of the most respected breeders in France. He raised Andalusians and Friesians and bred the most desirable, the outcome of which were magnificently beautiful agile creatures, whose endurance, intelligence and stature made them ideal for carrying men into war. He crossed their offspring with Lippazaners, which were known for their intelligence. And some he bred with other much smaller, more dainty breeds, ones known for their gait, like the Spanish Jennet. He even crossed them with stock from England and the wild horses of France's Camargue and all over Europe to achieve the beauty and ambling gate of the prized palfreys. It was the latter that the King had requested for his Queen.

The tall white door that led to the entry and the kitchen beyond had been left ajar like it usually was in the warmer months. Véronique pushed it open with her toes, feeling the cool stone under her feet as soon as she stepped inside. The bussel going on within the kitchen was no surprise with guests arriving today. Her mother demanded perfection whenever they were to have guests, but on this occasion it felt doubly so.

Véronique dropped her shoes and stockings in the corner near the door and padded into the kitchen, placing the bowl on the tall wooden work table in the middle of the room. Véronique's stomach growled softly as her attention traveled to the loaf of freshly baked bread.

"Go ahead," the cook, Agnès, said as if reading her mind and bringing a smile to Véronique's face.

Véronique's gaze slipped across the table looking for a knife and turned to find the older woman offering her one. "Cut it from the side," Agnès said. Véronique laid the knife down and made her way around the table to the wash basin.

"We don't want any squished loaves today," the older woman finished, remarking on Véronique's habit of flattening the bread she cut as Véronique washed her hands. She turned to find a small bowl of yaourt on the table by the bread. "You might as well have that as well," Agnès offered.

"You know me too well," Véronique said, with a smile. And she did. Agnès Durant had worked for Véronique's family as long as she could remember. Fresh honey, bread and yaourt were three of Véronique's most favorite things in the world. Véronique hurried across the room, grabbing the stool that set by the huge fireplace and brought it back to the table.

Agnès moved to the window peering out across the field then turned, barely giving Véronique another glance as she mumbled irritatedly as she crossed the ancient stone floor.

"What's wrong?" Véronique inquired as she perched on the stool and pulled a piece of crust from her bread. She could guess.

"Madame has changed the menu."

Véronique paused, her attention shifting to Agnès. The news was unsurprising, but not what she had expected. Her mother had commandeered Fleur from her job as a scullery maid to help clean fireplaces and change linen. She had actually expected that to be what was wrong.

"She's in a state," Véronique offered, only imagining how angry Agnès had to be.

The older women simply huffed.

Véronique leaned across the table, pulling the bowl of honey toward her. She slid the cheesecloth off. Picking up the spoon Agnès had left by her yaourt, she set about the task of drizzling a thin tendrils of honey across her bread. "She says it's not everyday the King offers patronage."

"Last I heard, the King was not the one coming."

That was the truth. According to her father, the cousin was. Tréville, if she remembered the name correctly, was the Captain of the King's Musketeers. And a man her mother would still wish to impress.

"Hmph," the older woman scoffed a second time, bringing Véronique from her thoughts. The line around her faded blue eyes deepened as she began, "First she steals my Fleur, then informs me she wants the fish sautéed in butter and mushrooms and served in white sauce."

"I see," Véronique said. Again, not at all surprised but completely uncertain why the previous dish wasn't fine.

"Apparently the fish caught yesterday smells too fishy so I also needed an entirely new catch. I sent Pierre to the mill pond to catch more and he hasn't returned yet."

The ridiculousness of this edict did bring her some pause. Her mother was famously famous among the staff for becoming unflinchingly difficult whenever guests were coming, but this was beyond ludicrous. Pierre was the ten-year-old who helped about the estate from time to time, but he should be helping the grooms clean the stable or their man servant. Not off fishing to replace fish that was more than likely, perfectly fine.

"Would you like me to go find him? I could help him," she encouraged.

"Madame will have my head," the old woman said, yet her gaze said she weighed the option.

"It's hours yet before or guests arrives. I can go and be back before my absence becomes relevant." Well, she could come and go before she felt her absence was relevant, that in no way meant her mother would agree. At that precise moment, a door somewhere deeper in the house closed loudly and then the noise of hurrying footsteps of what she could only assume was one of the maids and the scolding of a deep baritone voice.

While she wasn't certain which of her mother's four maids the footsteps belonged to, the voice belonged to Georges, their houseman. When his step started in their direction, she jumped up, snack forgotten. There was little doubt that if Georges entered the kitchen and she was still here, he would tell her that her mother was looking for her.

"Won't your father need you?"

Véronique shook her head, "No papa is ready." They had chosen the horses yesterday and groomed and rubbed them down this morning. Plus her father was not nearly as excitable as her mother. At this time of the morning, he was most likely in his library attending to estate business. "What other choice do we have? Trust me, the Baronne would rather I go see what's keeping Pierre so she can have her three course meal than lose one dish, no matter what she says."

"There's nothing to be done for it, but hurry."

XXX

"When was the last time you said you saw this cousin?" Porthos asked, his horse ambling down the path that cut right through the forest itself. Steep banks climbed up on either side of them. Long twisting branches from ancient oaks and walnuts lining the road, met over head, sending dappled sunlight to dance across the rutted road.

Holding his reigns in one hand, Tréville turned his head looking at the giant riding beside him. "I was just a child, Philippe is several years older than I."

"Do you think he will mind, being summoned to Paris?" Porthos inquired.

"Do you really think it matters," Aramis added, pointing out the King's habit of thinking every person in France existed for his own benefit. None of them were entirely sure but it had seemed the idea had been an impulsive last minute idea. They were also equally as certain, the Cardinal had maneuvered them into going on this trip, but the way was still unclear and left them all uncertain. Treville made excuses about Louis being king and it being up to them to follow orders but any fool could see he was anxious to get back to Paris.

"He is our king," Tréville reminded like he had the day they left and mirroring Aramis' thoughts..

At one point, Aramis might have been as dismissive but those words had begun to grate the more the Queen had begun to show and even more as their trip carried on.

"I think the real thing on Aramis' mind is are your cousin's daughters tolerable?" d'Artagnan threw out next, just to stir the pot a bit.

This earned Aramis a sharp look from Tréville. Letting any thoughts of the Queen go, Aramis' only response was to lean slightly forward, crossing his gloved wrists on his saddle's pommel and grin at the older man. Porthos had made the comment when they were leaving Paris that the only reason Aramis was jovial about being on an errand for the King was in case there were women.

Tréville hadn't acknowledged Porthos' words with no more than a look. That had prompted Aramis to ask, "How many daughters does your cousin have?"

"Maybe we should send d'Artagnan ahead so the Baron knows to hide them away," Athos suggested.

Dryly as ever, Tréville replied, "They're all safely married, or Aramis would be staying home."

The banter had continued on the four day trip to Lyon.

"These must be some magnificent horses for the King to send us on this long of a journey," Athos said, pulling Aramis back to the present.

Tréville nodded, not bothering to look at the other man,"My cousin has apparently created quite a name amongst the nobles."

"The trip back is going to take even longer," Porthos said rhetorically.

A soft snort emanated from somewhere within the party. None of them had been particularly interested in making this trip and most likely never would have been sent if the Cardinal had not suggested the king send Tréville. They had made it here in a little over four days. That was with spending nearly every hour of daylight, if not more in the saddle. None of them were looking forward to escorting a carriage back to Paris. The slowed pace would add significant time onto the trip.

Just up ahead, the trees gave way to open sky. "The crossroads are just ahead," Tréville began, "we should be on Acre lands soon."

About an hour later, they came upon to a bridge and on the other side a large expanse of meadow grass opened up in front of them.

"It isn't much further now. If I remember correctly, this stream is the eastern boundary," Tréville said, slowing his horse and steering him down a small bank instead of across the bridge. "We should water the horses."

Aramis followed the others down, his gaze drifting to the right. There was a pond short distance away, an old stone mill setting even further back, it's wheel slowly spinning. A few people milled about, but it wasn't that which pulled his attention. Nor was it the figure herself, initially, it was the sound of laughter. Once he saw her, his gaze stayed there. Yellow skirts gathered around her knees, she ran along the shore of the pond, seeming to dart out of reach just as her young companion stumblingly reached for her.

Aramis slowed his horse, his attention staying on her as she ran into the water and splashed the boy. She squealed, laughing as she dashed toward the shore as the child did the same to her. She spun around just then, her hair flying about slim shoulders and offering him his first full view of the bright smile on her face. Even from this distance he could see its radiance.

"Find something you like?" D'Artagnan asked, from close by.

"If all the scenery in Lyon is as lovely as she, I might just stay."

"Did you hear that captain?" Athos said, "if all the women in Lyon are that lovely he may just retire."

"And I daresay, d'Artagnan was right, he will be run through by a jealous husband or angry father within a week," Tréville replied dryly, as he turned his horse from the water. "Let's go," Tréville said, as he urged his horse across the slow moving water rather than back up the bank and across the bridge. The others followed, Porthos laughing.

"What about the brothers?" D'Artagnan inquired thoughtfully, "I'm sure there are brothers as well."

Aramis gave the girl one last look only to find she had turned away. He lingered for one more moment, before nudging his horse's sides.

"Forgive me if I do not worry. It hasn't happened yet," he boasted loudly.

XXX

Thanks for reading!

Author's note: well, hello again! Thank you for the reviews and follows! Like most authors, they make my day, haha! I just wanted to give you all a heads up, my updates might be a little sporadic right now. I have stuff going on and another story I'm finishing! Anyway, I hope you all enjoy!

Also, there is action and shenanigans to come, just not in the first couple chapters.

And a huge special thanks to my most amazing of Betas who is patiently trying to help me get everything right! Thank you, Anadora!