Chapter Twenty-Four: A Happy Ending

"We have to free everyone," Theo reminded Aiden.

Aiden nodded, picking up the crown. "Let us go do that first."

The four marched back down the stairs, and entered the grand hall.

"I have vanquished Lord Vardon from this castle," Aiden announced abruptly. "You are all free to leave. The Princesses have my apologies, and will be sent home immediately, with their kingdom titles."

There was a minute of silence as the people of the hall digested this, then, almost as one voice, they started talking and talking loudly.

Aiden held up his hand. "My father will answer your questions. In fact, you there!" he said, pointing at two confused looking guards. "Go retrieve my family."

The soldiers snapped to attention, then ran down the hall.

"Aiden!" his mother called, embracing him tightly.

"Hello mother," he said, patting her on the back.

"Son!" his father boomed, slapping him on the back. "Well done."

"Here, Father," Aiden said, handing his father the golden crown. Gerald placed it on his head and turned to the confused people of the hall.

He spread his hands. "If you would, join me in a grand feast in the celebration of all of our freedoms."

Rollo came up behind Gerald, walking a little slower to accommodate his wife's slow gait. "You must tell us all exactly how you defeated Vardon, Aiden."

"Well," Aiden started, pulling out a chair for his mother. The servants seemed especially cheerful, and soon the table was filled again with good-natured conversation and laughing, unlike the gloomy, strained talking that occupied it before.

"I cannot take all the credit," he continued after a bit of ham. "Danni was the one who actually freed Lark. Where is she anyway?"

"Danni?" his father asked.

"Lady Daniela," Aiden explained.

"Wasn't she the impostor?" Isabelle asked.

"Yes," Aiden said honestly, "but it doesn't matter. She has proven herself completely trustworthy to me."

He looked around again. "Where is she?"

Lynn looked at her brother. "Who is she then?"

"She's the daughter of a lady's maid for a baroness," Aiden said. "She worked in the stables to try and support her sick mother."

A slight frown creased Sarah's face. "What were her parents' names?" she asked.

"I don't know about her father. Her mother's name was Ella."

Sarah gasped, her hand going to cover her mouth. "It couldn't be, could it?" she whispered almost unintelligibly. The entire head of the table looked at her.

"What?" Aiden asked, his brows drawing together.

Sarah swallowed and laid a hand on her stomach, almost for courage. "Right after your father died," she said, looking at Theo, "my lady's maid, Ella, came to me. She told me that my husband had become drunk and…" she closed her eyes as if in pain. Rollo laid a hand on hers for support. She reopened her eyes and smiled at him. "He had forced himself on my maid. She became pregnant."

She shook her head sadly. "I tried to keep her as long as possible, but I was falling into ruin myself. I had to let her go."

"That means…" Lynn whispered.

Sarah nodded. "Daniela is Theo's half-sister."

"My God," Aiden swore. "Danni should know. Where is she?" He half stood from his chair when a servant rushed up to him.

"Milord," he said, bowing. "A gel left this for ye, just afore she ran out."

Aiden accepted the note with a nod of thanks and opened it.

Deer Aiden, she wrote, Im glad your family is safe. Im sory I could not be there but I feel that Im no longer needed. I wil try to find work and perhaps we could corisp corasp write eech other once I am setled.

Your frend,

Danni

Aiden nearly crumpled the note in frustration.

"Who is it from?" Gerald inquired while dishing some more carrots onto his plate.

"Danni," he responded shortly, standing up from the table.

"Where are you going?" Isabelle asked.

"To get her." With that, he strode from the hall.

Danni swiped at her sweaty forehead with the hem of her apron. It had been pleasant hoeing the garden in the early morning, but now that it was noon, the sun beat down on the back of her neck fiercely.

She straightened and put her hands on her hips, leaning backwards. Her back let out a satisfying 'crack'.

It had been a week since she had fled the castle. She and Carpet flew until they reached a little town east of Castle Fer Drewery. A kindly old woman took her in, having lost her own daughter, and now Danni helped the woman with her garden.

For a week, she had been away from a castle, and every day she questioned her motives. Not a morning went by when she didn't wake up, feeling she should go back to the castle, and then talk herself out of it.

"It's simple," she muttered to herself, chopping the hoe into the dirt. "I can't exactly stay around and make Aiden fall in love with me."

"Danni, dearie," the woman, who told Danni to call her Aunt Eustace, called, "we have company. Won't ye come in for a spot o' tea an' a bite ta eat?"

"That would be lovely," Danni replied with a smile, laying the hoe against the garden shed. She hoped it was the old Mister Tompkins. He was a very humorous man.

She walked into the small living room and nearly walked right back out again.

Sitting a chair that was obviously too small for him, and drinking from china that looked ridiculously fragile in his large hands, was Aiden.

"What are you doing here?" she stammered. Just the sight of him made her heart pound.

"Oh dear," Aunt Eustace exclaimed. "We're completely outta flour. Now I canna make those biscuits like I wanted ta."

"That is perfectly alright…" Aiden began, but Aunt Eustace stopped him with a wave of her hand.

"Balderdash. We must have biscuits fer tea. I'll just nip down to Johnson's an' pick some up. Ye just wait right there, an' talk with Danni like a good lad." She threw on a bright scarlet cape, looking slightly ridiculous, and grabbed her cane.

"Yes, my lady," Aiden said, barely suppressing a grin.

"Be back in a moment, dearies," she chirped cheerfully.

Aiden indicated the chair across from him. "Please, sit."

Danni sat down, dumbstruck. "How did you find me?" she asked finally.

He raised an eyebrow at her and took a sip of tea. "I am the prince of the realm. I can find practically anyone I want."

"Oh," she said. She poured herself a cup of tea, not so much to drink it, but so that she would have something to do with her hands. Her heart was beating so loud that she was sure he could hear it clear across the room.

"What are you doing here, then?" she asked.

"I wanted to talk," Aiden said calmly, shifting in the small chair. "You said in your letter that we were friends, and I assume that friends talk to each other."

"Of course," she said, nodding nervously. "What would you like to talk about?"

"Well, actually," Aiden said, leaning forward and setting down his tea, "I've met a girl. I'm positive that she's the one I want to marry."

Danni could almost hear her heart break. "How wonderful for you," she managed to get out. She stretched her lips into what might resemble a smile.

"Yes," Aiden said, sighing, "but I'm afraid I might have done something to scare her off. She hasn't spoken to me in what feels like a week."

Danni was caught in between sorrow and sympathy. She knew what it felt like to not have love returned.

"What do you think I should do?" Aiden asked her, his green gaze catching hers.

"Um," Danni said, brushing her hands over her blue frock, "have you told her you love her?"

Aiden frowned. "I'd have hoped that she would have figured it out on her own. She's pretty smart, and I've sure given her enough hints."

Danni shook her head. "That's not good enough, Aiden. You have to actually tell her."

"Okay," he said, thinking. "What else?"

"Well, if you tell her that, and ask her to marry you, she would have to be an imbecile not to accept."

Aiden gave her a huge smile that warmed her right to her toes. "That is good to know."

He stood. Danni quickly climbed to her feet as well, setting her tea cup on the table with a slight clatter.

They walked to the door.

"Shall we take a walk through the garden?" Aiden suggested.

"I suppose," Danni acquiesced hesitantly. Aiden offered her his arm, and they began to stroll through the small garden.

They strolled through the small garden, Danni pointing out the different plants and herbs that she had tended. After a while, she stopped talking and they walked in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts.

"Thank you for coming to see me, Aiden," Danni said softly. He may never be hers, but at least they should part amicably.

"Danni?" Aiden said, stopping by a small rose bush.

"Yes?" she responded. He turned and took her hands in his.

"Daniela," he started seriously, but then he took a deep breath and smiled. "Danni. We have been through a lot together, and I can't imagine my future without you." He looked deep into her eyes, making her knees shake.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I never have the words when I really need them," he said with an apologetic smile on his face.

"What do you mean?" she whispered, a thread of hope worming its way into her mind.

"I love you more than life, Danni," he said simply. "Marry me?"

Danni was struck absolutely speechless. She gazed at him, looked over his beloved features with her mouth gaping open.

He moved a little closer to her. "Please?"

It was the pleading in his voice that broke through to her.

"Yes," she said softly, then liking it, said it louder. "Yes, I'll marry you, Aiden." She felt like she couldn't say it enough. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" she chanted happily, sprinkling kisses on his face.

Aiden crushed her against him and kissed her on the mouth. It was a good thing that he held her so tightly because she was sure that she was melting into a puddle of wax.

"We should go home," Aiden said softly, pressing a kiss to her eyebrow.

"Home," Danni said slowly, a smile spreading across her lips. She hadn't had a true home in so long; it was almost like a dream.

"Wait, Aiden," she said, suddenly nervous. "What about your parents?"

"I'll take care of them," he said, trying to kiss her again.

"But," she said, turning her head slightly, "what about the whole Princess of Tolaro fiasco?"

"I'll take care of it."

"But…"

"Danni," he interrupted, with a slight frown, "I'll take care of it. I'll take care of you."

"And I'll take care of you," she said, leaning in for another kiss.

"I go out for a little bit o' flour, an' I come back to find ye kissin' in me garden," Aunt Eustace said with a merry twinkle in her eyes. "I told ye to talk ta her, not kiss her."

"I couldn't help it," he said with a charming grin. "She's so pretty."

"That she is." Aunt Eustace turned to Danni. "Will ye be happy with him?" she asked, seriously.

Danni didn't even hesitate. "Yes, I will."

And she knew it was true. She couldn't picture a happier place than in her love's arms.

"Forever," Aiden whispered and kissed her again.