She held her head high, almost defiantly. She had a look in her eyes that told Henry she would demand his full attention. And she would accept no argument. He had never seen her show such presence. She had always been so meek, so quiet. Now she held the air of a royal, and she knew it.
“Your Highness.” Her voice was cool. Henry thought he could hear disdain in her voice. “I'm sure you're wondering what I'm doing here.”
Henry was sure he could guess. The Baroness had been pushing him and Marguerite together. He didn't expect her to give up now that he had turned Danielle away. Although why she should send Jacqueline he wasn't sure. And he was hardly in the mood for games. “Why don't you tell me?”
Jacqueline stared hard at the prince. She seemed to be studying him. “I don't know what she saw in you. It wasn't the crown. And the way you behaved last night was horrible to say the least. She risked everything to see you, and you destroyed everything she had left.”
“What are you talking about? I didn't speak with Marguerite last night.”
“Danielle. You made a fool of her, and yourself.”
Henry frowned. “She lied to me. She embarrassed herself.”
Jacqueline gave a little smirk, a look that Henry had never seen on her face before. “You really believe she wanted to lie to you? Do you have any idea what her life is like? I've heard the talk around the manor. I know she was the only reason Maurice was able to come home to his wife. She is a slave in her own home. The maids are her family. You were the one man in her life she truly cared about, and you turned her away.”
Henry opened his mouth to object, but quickly closed it. With a sigh he sat down in one of the chairs along the wall, motioning for Jacqueline to do the same. Jacqueline glared at Henry, but sat in the opposite chair. She stared at him hard, almost as if she dared him to speak, to tell her she was wrong.
Henry shook his head. “That doesn't explain why she lied. How do you know all of this?”
Jacqueline laughed, a hard bitter sound. “You really are blind. I am nothing like Marguerite. And I am reminded of that fact daily. Often more. I am no better thought of than Danielle. And I am the daughter of a Baroness. Do you really think the step-daughter of a woman who could be so cold to her own child would truly be cared for as anything other than a servant? Danielle meant nothing to Mother or Marguerite. She was born of a man with enough status to marry a Baroness, making her as much a lady as I am. She finally confided in me, while I tended the injuries from a whipping she received.”
Henry sat up straight, but kept his face impassive. The idea that anyone would whip Danielle was unthinkable. Then a thought struck him like the blow of a fist. He had met her, and she had flinched at his touch, just before she had run off. She must have been whipped before that meeting. The realization made Henry clench his fists.
Jacqueline rose, staring down at Henry with such disdain that he almost rose to meet her. Before he could stand she spoke one last time. “You may hold your position above all else. But if you have any honor at all, I pray you use it now. You don't love Danielle, that you made clear. But you would make a worse mistake if you consider Marguerite as a bride. I would rather see a foreign princess on the throne than my sister. You stole one woman's happiness, don't steal a whole kingdom's as well.”
For the third time in less than a day, Henry was left watching after someone as they walked away. He groaned in frustration. His mind was made up and he wouldn't change it now. None of the news that Jacqueline had so coldly delivered mattered, Henry told himself. She was a servant to be done with as the Baroness saw fit. Then why did he want to run to her rescue?
Henry stood. Word had to be sent to the Princess of Spain. The preparations for the wedding had to be started. He refused to think of Danielle. If he focused on the wedding he would forget. He had to. The thought that Danielle had been treated so harshly and he had missed it made him ill. That she was a slave to her own family was deplorable. If he continued to dwell on those thoughts he would surely go mad.
The prince stalked out of the room. His head swirled. He knew he would never choose Marguerite. But was Spain really the answer? “It doesn't matter. My mind has been made up.” Henry looked around as if to dare anyone to defy him. Only an empty hall greeted him. Henry sighed and made his way to find his father. The message would be sent before day's end.
The rest of the day passed in a blur for Henry. The princess would be arriving within the week. Decorations were already being placed for the wedding. Messengers had been sent with news of the event. All seemed to be in order.
Henry dropped into a chair and sighed. He had never felt so drained. He tried to tell himself it was because there was so much to be done before the princess arrived. He had just closed his eyes when the swish of skirts stopped in front of him. He was sure he had been alone.
“You always were as stubborn as your father.”
Henry opened his eyes and stared at his mother. She smiled sadly and reached to ruffle his hair. Henry had forgotten how much he missed that simple act. It had been meant to soothe him as a child. It only made him miss it more now. “I won't change my mind. I will be married at weeks end. And it will be to a true princess.”
“Of course. You always knew what you wanted. There is no reason to think that you would change your mind now.” The queen went silent as if she was thinking. She knew there was no point in arguing. “I suppose you won't be building that University of yours. After all, it isn't like you to take such interest in things of that nature. One can only assume it was the influence of that young woman. Imagine, to pretend to be noble. And for what? She accomplished nothing. I've been told that her secret was discovered long before she admitted to it.”
Henry stood up. “What do you mean? Who knew? Was I allowed to make a fool of myself this whole time and everyone knew?”
“Sit down. You sound like your father. I was told only after the ball. You know how people talk. Seems she was nicely dressed when she bought the life of a prisoner. But some of the ladies noticed her shoes were those of a simple farm girl. Quite a contradiction wouldn't you say?”
“I remember that day. She thought I was arrogant and maybe she had a point. I was that close to her and didn't even notice her clothing.” Henry shook his head.
“Why should you notice anything about her? I'm surprised you even talked to her. What could she have offered for conversation? She's nothing but a servant.”
Henry bristled. He had never known his mother to speak so harshly of anyone. “She offered more than many royals could ever manage. She was smart and brave. She didn't simply give up. She wouldn't bow to anyone or anything. She faced whatever was before her. She was kind and gentle, but strong.” Henry stopped and looked at his mother. She was smiling. A smile that Henry remembered from the days of his lessons. The smile she always gave him when he had finally figured something out.
“Well, perhaps it is better you marry someone more mild. She sounds quite the handful. But then you know what you want. You had better get some rest. You have a wedding to prepare for.” The queen rose and kissed Henry on the head before leaving.
Henry watched his mother go, feeling more lost than ever.