by Deb Kern

Disclaimer - This is a story in progress. Sections will be posted as they are finalized. I have done research on this time frame and the political climate. While I tried to stay true to some of the historical trappings, I took liberties with MANY things. It is fiction first. I apologize to any history buffs and to the people of Spain and France for my lack of knowledge. When I get paid to write these things, I promise to get it exact, but until then, I have a day job and not enough time or money to hire a research assistant.

Copyright - This is an alternative uber tale. No copyright infringement is intended. This is not to be used for profit.

Subtext and Sex - Yes and yes. If the idea of two women loving each other is not your cup of tea; go get a glass of milk and skip this. If you are under the age of 18 years of age or this type of story is illegal in your state or country, please do not read it.

Violence and Language - There are scenes of fighting. The language is pretty mild.

Credits - This story line is completely my own, but the poem that is found as a journal entry in Section Three is by a very talented poet. I inquired if she would lend her beautiful words to this story and she accepted. I cannot tell you how honored and grateful I am. Thank you Renotta. Your poetry is always a source of inspiration.

Dedication - This is for my twin sister. She has been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement and like me, is a huge romantic. You're amazing.

Thank You - Big hugs to Cindy at ForevaXena, Stacia, and Tracey for beta reading and for your words of encouragement. Kisses to The Bard's Village for all the wonderful feedback and for giving me a home in your talented community. A big thank you to Mary D for the Xippy's on “Written in My Days” and “My Cup of Tea”. I'm a beginning writer and these awards have encouraged my to write on.

Email: dikern@aol.com

The princess was invited to Spain, or so her father said. Danielle knew this was an arranged visit. It was inevitable. She would be twenty-one years old in a fortnight, and after already turning down two of the suitors her parents had chosen, she was to be given only one more chance. Being a Princess, twenty-one, and unmarried in 1703 was unheard of in France. The vision of her mother fainting if she refused again came to Danielle's mind and she chuckled lightly to herself.

'It would serve her right. I know she loves me, but all this marriage talk has darkened my soul,' Danielle thought as she turned her green eyes toward the open window and peered out at the dying of the day. The soft, low light outside cast a purple glow across the gardens. The twittering of a bird caught her attention and she watched it swoop effortlessly across the sky.

'Oh, little bird, what I wouldn't give for those wings,' Danielle mused, thinking that taking flight might be her only option.

'I'd gladly give up my title and all the spectacle of these riches to freely choose a love that was based on more than just what was appropriate and good for my country.'

A knock at her door caused Danielle to jump slightly and jolted her from her romantic notions.

“Who is it?”

“It's your mother, darling . . . we need to talk.”

Danielle slowly made her way to the large wooden door, dreading the conversation that would follow.

“Hello, Mother, some words of advice I presume. Let's see if I remember from our last talk--behave in a ladylike fashion, be courteous, and above all ACT like I am head over heels for the Spaniard,” Danielle spat out sarcastically.

“Danielle, what am I going to do with you? You know how hard this is on your father and me and yet you do nothing but sabotage our efforts,” her mother said, brushing the folds from her gown and adjusting her oversized ruby necklace.

“Really, Danielle, we almost died from embarrassment at your last display in Italy. Honestly, child, your father still hears about how you loaded your plate at the welcoming meal not twice but three times, and don't even try the 'I was only hungry' line on me again. We know you did that on purpose. The only conclusion that young man could draw was that he would be marrying a woman who would triple in width in no time,” she finished.

Danielle couldn't help the smirk that crossed her face. She remembered very well the eating display she had put on for the royal family. Wide eyes stared in amazement when she devoured three plates full of food and then asked about dessert. She started laughing outright as the memory came to the front of her mind. Try as she might, Danielle's mother couldn't help but join in. At first her chuckles came out in half spurts and coughed gasps as she tried to cover her amusement with her handkerchief. Finally, upon watching her daughter remembering the event, she joined her in contagious laughter. Both women gripped hands in their entertained state.

As they composed themselves, Danielle's mother reached up and gently brushed back the blonde strands of hair from her daughter's cheek. She studied the beautiful face before her and felt a twinge of sadness.

“Cherie, I know this is hard. Being born into royalty carries with it a burden and an obligation that mustn't be taken lightly. We have had this conversation before, and as much as your father and I love you, we must ask you to remember your position in France.” She spoke solemnly, bringing the conversation back to a serious tone.

“We leave tomorrow morning, dear. Do I have your word that you will not disappoint us again?”

“You have my word, Mother.” Danielle said.

“Thank you. Goodnight, dear . . . I love you,” her mother said, kissing Danielle's cheek.

As the door closed Danielle felt her hopes and dreams vanish, replaced now with the sense of responsibility and tradition. This was her duty to her family and country.

Danielle rarely prayed for herself, but tonight she needed strength that was not her own.

“Lord, if you see fit to give my life true meaning, then please let this man my parents have chosen be strong in will but gentle of heart. Let him understand my independence and embrace my differences. If there is a chance that he could be the holder of the blue eyes I have dreamt of for years, Lord, I would be eternally grateful. But, if my life will be one of honor not desire, of loyalty not happiness, and of pretenses not passion, then, Lord . . . I pray you give me strength to live it.”

Blowing out the candle, she lay down in bed and brought forth the vision of the crystal blue eyes that had been in her dreams since she was fourteen years old. Never being able to put a clear face to the eyes didn't stop Danielle from fantasizing about them. She knew if she were ever actually looking into them, she would be seeing her true love. All she could do was hope upon hope that those eyes were waiting for her in Spain.

Falling into a relaxed and dreamy state, she thought about those blue eyes once more. She had an inexpressible sweet desire to find this one true love. Danielle slowly put her hand to her mouth, nipping and sucking the tender piece of flesh between her thumb and forefinger as she imagined kissing the holder of those eyes. She imagined being pulled down on silk sheets as her dress was eased open with those blue eyes settling in, kissing her neck, collarbone . . . breasts. Slowly her hands moved lower as she gave into her desire and the vision claimed her soul.


Maria woke in an overheated state, sitting straight up in bed.

“No, no, no, don't wake up, not yet.” She quickly flopped back down and covered her head with a pillow, willing herself back to sleep.

“Arrgh . . . it's no use!” She bolted from bed and went to the window. Cora, a Springer Spaniel and her furry companion, was at her side in an instant.

“Sorry, girl, I didn't mean to wake you,” she said scratching the curly long spotted ears. Cora trotted across the room and stood next to the rifle propped by the door.

“No, Cora, it's not time for hunting, girl. It's even too early for the pheasant to be up.” She smiled at her anxious hunting partner. Dejected but clearly understanding, the dog jumped back on the bed, made two circles and settled back into sleep.

Maria watched the stars and thought about the green eyes that she had been kissing in her sleep. “Why do I always wake before I see the face that belongs to those eyes?”


The princess and her entourage, which consisted of her mother, the queen; her handmaid, Anne; the queen's handmaid, Sophie; the captain of the guard, Luc; and twenty of the most highly acclaimed regents of the French army made a grand parade across France and Spain.

Along the way, Danielle and her mother discussed the Spanish family they were going to meet and the political climate in Spain. A marriage to a high-ranking Spaniard would help continue the alliance that had been formed when the Bourbons came to power in Spain in 1700. Danielle was well aware of this.

Philip V, the first Bourbon ruler of Spain, was chosen by Danielle's father King Louis XIV at the direction of the Pope himself. While this decision was favored by some, many Spaniards were upset with the transfer of power back to the French. Fighting from Spanish dissidents was intense. Three years into Philip V's rule, opposition was starting to wane but small raiding parties still put up resistance.

King Louis XIV produced many offspring by maidens of the court in his younger years. However, when he married Danielle's mother his exploits stopped. The queen, 14 years younger than Louis, bore him additional, legitimate children. Danielle was his youngest daughter.

King Louis had handpicked the gentleman whom Danielle was on her way to meet. Fredrick Cordoba, son of the minister of Spain, was set to take his father's place in the royal court. Spanish dissidents scouring the land in 1701 had mistakenly killed Fredrick's father.

Fredrick, 21 years of age, was dark skinned with blue eyes and broad strong shoulders. He was the perfect political match, and the king had intentionally left him for the last arrangement with Danielle. He knew his daughter would turn down the first two suitors, or so he had hoped. Now Danielle, left without a choice, would be forced to marry the man that Louis had wanted to begin with.


Looking out of the windows of the horse-drawn coach, Danielle dreamily commented on the Spanish countryside.

“Spain is like a great castle that rises from the sea.” Danielle began slowly, rhythmically, like the beginning of a poem.

“The air is crisp and spicy. It reminds me of sweet hot cider on an autumn day, and look, the entire perimeter of the country is marked by ranges of mountains.”

Pointing, Danielle excitedly called out. “It's beautiful. Look! Many of the peaks are still snow covered.”

The handmaids, drawn into the vision Danielle painted, rested their heads close together, peeking out of the carriage as a group. Anne was half sitting on Danielle's lap and all three women held each other's hands. Danielle had made up her mind to enjoy this trip, even though the outcome might lead to unhappiness. As always, Danielle lived each day finding something good and beautiful to be thankful for.

“You've always had a way with words. Finding beauty in almost everything is a special gift you have,” the queen said, looking lovingly at her daughter and the ladies.

Danielle looked back and smiled at her mother. She snapped her head back when Anne pointed out a rabbit darting for the bushes.

Danielle was a friend to everyone in the French court. Anne and Sophie were more like sisters to Danielle than hired help. Danielle treated everyone with respect and dignity. She was a breath of fresh air in the castle and the queen knew she wouldn't be the only one to miss her youngest daughter.

Watching the women laughing together, sadness crept into the queen's thinking. 'I hope Danielle doesn't lose this special quality after her arranged marriage.' she mused, lost in her thoughts.

The queen looked down to her folded hands and closed her eyes as Anne, Sophie, and Danielle continued to point, laugh, and enjoy a sunny day in Spain.


“Cora, wake him.” Maria ordered softly to her companion as she swung the door open.

Cora jumped up on the bed and with one long stride, stood atop the sleeping form. Tongue poised for a morning kiss, the springer spaniel looked back at her master for the command.

Maria nodded and with a cold wet, slap in the face, the sleeping form awoke.

“Good God! Get that mongrel out of here. Who let her in?” the irritated voice demanded as a quick hand wiped a wet dog kiss from a stunned cheek.

Cora growled softy at the choice of words used to describe her and jumped down.

Sleepy eyes focused on the head hovering above his bed. “I should have known!
Maria, what are you doing in here so early, and didn't I tell you to keep your dog away from me in the morning? Can't you let your poor brother sleep? You know I only have so many days of my freedom left. Do you plan to torture me to the bitter end?” Fredrick said sternly to his sister.

“Now that you mention it . . . yes.” Maria said sarcastically as she stepped over and pulled open the heavy drapes.

“Actually, baby brother, I thought you might like to go hunting with us this morning. From what I hear the French princess can eat her weight in gold.” Maria got another dig in. “There may not be enough fish and fowl in all of Spain to satisfy this girl's appetite. Cora and I are getting a jump on it; mustn't let the princess starve now, can we?”

“Oh sure, go ahead and make your fun. Who appointed you court jester today?” Fredrick moaned. “Please, I beg of you, leave me to what little peace I have left.” He rolled over and covered his eyes, too tired to continue these games.

“Are you sure you won't come, then?" Maria half laughed. She was waiting for a response but none came. Walking back and leaning down, Maria saw the slow rise and fall of her brother's chest; she placed a small kiss on his forehead and quietly walked out. Cora was one step ahead.

Maria was extremely close to her only sibling. Even though she teased him, it pained her to see him forced into a marriage of convenience, but tradition and family name came at a high price. Maria knew her brother as an honest and decent man. He would treat the princess kindly no matter what kind of person she turned out to be. Maria's job was to make her brother's life livable, and she planned on doing anything in her power to comfort him.

“She better treat him well, Cora,” Maria said, following the wagging tail ahead of her. “Anything less than respect will end in a royal princess with a black Spanish boot up her butt,” she finished as she headed to the kitchen to prepare for her hunting trip.

Since her father's death, Maria had been friend and guardian to her brother and mother. She naturally stepped in as head of the household and kept things running just as smoothly as her father had. Maria, 30 years of age, had never been an ordinary Spanish woman. Her father indulged her passion for horses, hunting, and sword fighting. Most men were too intimidated to approach her, and the men who had tried, Maria found boring and a complete waste of her time. Maria's mother had all but given up hope that marriage would ever be a part of Maria's life.

“Good morning, Mother.” Maria addressed the yawning woman by the window.

“Good morning and good morning to you, little one.” the woman said bending over and placing a small piece of sausage in front of Cora's waiting mouth.

“Where are you two headed so early this morning?” She questioned.

“A little hunting to prepare for the arrival of the French princess.” Maria said, laughing as she winked down at Cora.

“That's very thoughtful of you. I'm sure Fredrick will appreciate that.”

Maria laughed louder as her mother looked on, confused at the amusement in her daughter's response.

“Oh, I'm sure he'll think of some way to thank me.” Maria joked as she grabbed a couple of pieces of sausage and wrapped a piece of warm bread in a cloth.

Maria and Cora headed out the door and down to the stables.


The queen's head snapped up at the sudden stop of the carriage.

“Why have we stopped?” the queen questioned Danielle.

Before she could answer, a single shot rang out. The sound of running horses and shouting broke the silence. More shots were heard.

The captain of the guard appeared before the open carriage window. "Your Majesty, keep these doors closed and the curtains tightly pulled! There are bandits afoot. Do not leave this carriage under any circumstances. I'll let you know when it's safe!"

“Be careful, Luc!” Danielle yelled out as her mother pulled the curtains together firmly.

The Queen grabbed Danielle's hand, her worried expression conveying the truth; they were under attack.

Luc quickly rode to the front of the fighting, leaving ten of his men as a wall to guard the queen and princess. There appeared to be at least twenty Spaniards dressed in black and armed with swords, six of whom carried single shot muzzle-loading weapons. A round whistled past his head as he jumped down from his horse.

The stench of gunpowder hung in the air. He heard moaning from men in obvious pain. Turning in the direction of the cries, he saw one of his men on the ground clutching his stomach. Blood spilled through his fingers. Another of his men lay motionless a few feet away. Only he and eight of his regents were now left at the front of the fighting. It would only be matter of time before many of the Spaniards made their way towards the carriage.

Drawing his sword, he engaged a bandit running his way. He did not like the odds of this situation and was hoping he could dispose of the man quickly and move on to another adversary before the other Spaniards advanced. Suddenly, behind him, he heard a woman's voice.

“What do we have here?” Maria yelled. “Is that you, Ortega? What cave did your soul crawl out of today?”

The man in front of the captain pulled away and was moving backwards at a slow pace, staring at the approaching woman.

“Stay out of this, Maria. You should be on our side and you know it. You do not honor your country by supporting the French,” Ortega spat back at her.

“I see, Ortega, and you call murdering innocent people an honorable action. Funny, but that has all the markings of the coward that I know you are.” Maria drew her sword as she moved forward.

“Call off your men or I will run you through right now.” She eased forward, stopping at the side of the French captain.

Glancing over, Luc saw a figure that left him speechless. This woman was over six feet tall; a cape covered her broad shoulders and black hair fell loosely from under a black-rimmed hat. Crystal blue eyes scanned him for an instant and then retrapped her prey. A medium-sized dog flanked her on the left.

“Welcome to Spain.” Maria said softly out of the side of her mouth. Her eyes never left Ortega. “Is the princess safe?”

“She and the queen are in the carriage behind us, Mademoiselle.” Luc replied just as softly.

“Cora, protect!” Maria commanded her companion and motioned with the tilt of her head.

Cora sprang into action. As fast as her four legs would carry her, she was past the fighting, leaving a small trail of dust, and with a single jump dove through the curtains and into the window of the carriage, landing right between four startled women.

The women jumped off their seats. "Oh my!" yelled the queen. “It's a . . . it's a . . . it's a--”

“It's a dog, Mother.” Danielle said with a calm voice, looking over at her mother and rolling her eyes.

The queen had her hand on her heart and was trying to get her breathing back under control. Sophie had fainted and Anne was busy fanning her in an attempt to revive her.

Reaching down, Danielle spoke, “Hello, little one. Aren't you the brave soul.”

Danielle scratched behind the dog's ears and then patted her on the head. Cora looked up, wagging her tail. Danielle continued to pet the adorable dog as she struggled to hear what was taking place outside. A woman's voice seemed to be yelling something barley audible. Danielle couldn't make out what she was saying, but it sounded like she was engaged in the fighting.

Cora continued wagging her tail but never took her eyes off the window she'd just sailed through. Outside the fighting grew nearer. Hearing steps coming closer, Cora began to growl, her teeth showing from behind arched gums. Danielle removed her hand and along with Cora watched the carriage door.

“I won't repeat myself again, Ortega. Call these men off or this will be your last day of fighting!” Maria stepped closer to the retreating figure in front of her.

Luc heard footsteps behind him. Whirling around, he raised his sword, catching the man off guard. A thin red line appeared across the Spaniard's cheek, letting Luc know that his sword had found its target. The Spaniard put one hand to his cheek but kept on fighting. Another assailant soon joined the bleeding Spaniard and the captain had his hands full.

“Your father would be disappointed in your actions, Maria! He was a true Spaniard,” Ortega baited her. “Bourbon rule will be the end of Spanish tradition. Stand up for what is right and fight with us.”

“My father would curse your misguided deeds. No true Spaniard would go against his king.” Maria spoke from behind clenched teeth; her anger was building quickly.

Hoping to catch Maria in an emotionally charged state, Ortega shouted, “Your father would call you a coward!” as he spat on the ground.

“No more talking!” Maria lurched forward with her sword extended, arm bent at the elbow and legs in a wide stance.

Ortega lunged at her as metal hit metal. Each move Ortega threw at Maria was matched and with as much force and resistance. Her skills were legendary in Spain. Ortega knew he had to find an opening. He lunged at her chest with his sword and with lightning-fast speed dropped to the ground, making a sweeping move with his legs. Maria jumped in the air and flipped forward, completely untouched. Ortega jumped to his feet and felt the slice of a blade tear through his shirt as a crimson line quickly appeared.

He knew Maria could have killed him in that instant, but she'd chosen to wound him instead. If he stayed she wouldn't give him a second chance.

With her sword still pointing at Ortega's chest she raised her left hand, wiggling her fingers back and forth. “Come on, you want some more? My blade is just getting warmed up!” Maria snarled, her left eyebrow raised and lip curled up at the corner.

Ortega knew better. He was hurt even if it was mostly a flesh wound, and the mood Maria was in scared him enough to call a retreat.

“I'll meet you again, Maria!” Ortega breathed quickly as he headed for the trees, holding his chest. “RETREAT!”

Luc ordered his men to regroup and check on the wounded. He then turned to the dark-haired woman.

“My name is Luc, Mademoiselle. Your intervention was greatly appreciated. Without your help, I'm afraid to think what the fate of the queen and the princess would have been. Thank you.” The captain held out his hand.

“It was the least I could do, Señor. You'll have no more trouble on this road, of that I'm quite certain. Your destination is only five miles to the south,” Maria said as she replaced her sword, wiped her hands, and shook the extended hand of friendship. “You'll find a doctor's home just three miles ahead. It's a large farm. Stop there and see what can be done for your wounded. Tell him Maria sent you.”

“You know of the Cordoba family, then?” Luc inquired.

Maria raised her head and yelled in the direction of the carriage.

“Cora, come!”

Inside, Cora stood rooted in place. The princess continued to pet her and scratch her ears. Her touch was gentle and comforting and even though Cora heard her mistress's command, she lingered for another pat. The women inside could tell the fighting had stopped, but the captain had been adamant about staying in place until he returned. Since the voices outside were muffled, the princess decided to obey his command.

“Cora! Come!” Maria said with more authority in her voice.

“I think someone is calling you, little one. Let me get the door for you.” Danielle cracked the door just enough to let her protector out and then closed it right behind her. Cora pranced to her master's side and sat.

“If there is nothing more I can do here, I'll be on my way.” Maria said as she mounted her horse, tipping her hat in the direction of the captain. “Be safe, Luc.”

The captain bowed his head at her gesture and watched the mysterious figure ride away. The dog was right behind her.

Luc moved quickly to the carriage. “Your Majesty, are you all right in there?” the captain inquired, standing just outside the door.

“Yes, quite fine, Captain,” the queen called out.

Opening the door and pushing back the curtains, Luc poked his head in, making certain his precious cargo was indeed all right.

“Captain, what was that all about?” the queen asked, her hand still held closely to her heart.

“It appears not every Spaniard has taken to the idea of French rule, my lady. Luckily for us, at least one very brave Spanish woman has,” he concluded.

“So it was a woman's voice I heard?” Danielle asked.

“Yes, Princess. Quite unbelievable really. This woman is truly remarkable. Her fighting skills would rival the best in the French army, and her appearance . . . well, it would stop you dead in your tracks,” he admitted. “I've seen nothing like her.”

“Can you tell me more about her?” Danielle asked. She was intrigued by the captain's response. 'And what did he mean about her appearance?'

“I'm sorry, my lady, it will have to wait until later. We really must have our wounded attended to and we shouldn't sit here any longer,” Luc said, with urgency in his voice.

“Of course, Luc. Later then.” Danielle nodded and closed the curtain.

The women inside sat in silence as their journey continued. They were all shaken from their experience. Danielle was thinking about the Spanish woman. She wished she could have seen her in action. She was impressed with such bravery. Even more importantly, she couldn't wait to hear about what the woman looked like. Danielle silently wished she would get a chance to meet her.

By the time the royal carriage found its way to the villa of Cordoba, it was late in the afternoon. Two of the courageous Frenchmen had lost their battle with life on the way to see the Spanish doctor, and three others were left behind for treatment. Luc was grateful for the assistance of the doctor, who promised to do all he could for the injured and send word of their prognosis to the villa.

As the carriage came to a stop, Danielle pulled open the curtains for a closer look. The grounds were immaculate and the villa itself beautiful. Fountains that spewed single streams of water cascading high into the air framed a long walkway surrounded on either side by rows of pink and yellow roses. It was truly a remarkable site. The villa itself was a long two-story structure that was covered in a white textured exterior. Balconies enclosed the entire second floor. Luscious green trees accented the sprawling estate, and magnificent arched doorways gave the villa an open and airy appearance.

“This is beautiful, Mother,” Danielle said as Luc appeared to help the ladies out of the carriage.

The noise of the entourage brought forth a stream of activity from inside the villa. A woman a little older then Danielle's mother was the first to step up and greet them. High cheekbones and a strong jaw set off her dark skin and graying long dark hair.

“Welcome to my home, Your Majesty. My name is Rosalinda Cordoba.” The Spanish woman curtsied.

“Thank you, Mrs. Cordoba,” the queen began.

“Please call me Rosa, Your Majesty. Everyone does.”

“In that case you must call me Catherine. This is my daughter, Danielle, and our captain of the guard, Luc,” the queen added.

The Spanish woman lifted her head up and smiled in Danielle's direction.

“Such a pleasure to meet you, Danielle.”

“You are too kind, the pleasure is all mine,” Danielle said.

Luc stepped forward. Bowing and taking Rosa's hand in his, he placed a small kiss on the back of her hand.

“Captain,” Rosa said, acknowledging him. “We are honored to have you as our guests.”

Rosa motioned them to follow her.

“I heard of your troubles on the road, Captain,” Rosa said, leading the group up the walkway past a line of attentive Spanish staff. “I will do everything in my power to see those men are brought to justice.”

Turning away from the captain, Rosa cheerfully addressed the rest of her guests. “You must be exhausted from your travels. Anything at all you need, please ask and I will see it is taken care of. My staff will show you to your rooms. We have a wonderful meal planned for you this evening and some merriment, Spanish-style, that will be sure to lift your spirits,” Rosa said, winking at Danielle.

As the Princess stepped through the arched doorway her eyes fell upon the man descending the staircase. He was handsome and tall. Danielle caught a glimpse of blue eyes that carried a hint of something familiar.

“Ah, Fredrick,” Rosa began, excited to see her son. “I want you to meet the queen of France and her beautiful daughter, Danielle.”

Danielle's heart started to race. She needed a closer look at those eyes.

Fredrick stepped forward, bowing to the queen and princess. He lifted Danielle's hand and placed a small kiss on it.

“A pleasure to meet you, Princess. Welcome to Spain,” Fredrick said as he looked up into green eyes of the princess.

Danielle said nothing and stood staring at the blue eyes in front of her.

“Everything okay, Princess?” Fredrick inquired, feeling a little uneasy at the look that seemed to be measuring him.

“What . . . um . . . yes, thank you. Everything is fine. I'm just a little tired, I'm afraid. It's very nice to meet you also, Fredrick.”

Fredrick stepped back slightly.

“There will be plenty of time for you two to get acquainted later. You need some rest now,” Rosa said.

“Until later, Danielle,” Fredrick said.

“Yes, later then,” Danielle said, still searching his eyes.

The princess sat in her room mulling over the event that had just transpired. Fredrick was handsome, there was no doubt about that. She knew she'd been staring at him but she couldn't help herself. His eyes were so close to her dream, yet there was something missing that she couldn't put her finger on.

'I thought I would know the instant I saw you!' Danielle thought to herself. 'Is it possible you are the one? Am I looking too hard?' Danielle put her hands in her head, swallowing hard.

Danielle decided to take a walk to clear her mind. She was getting too caught up in her dreams. 'I just need to take it step by step and settle down.' Trying to talk herself out of a self-imposed panic attack, she went outside for some fresh air. Surely that would snap her out of the state she was in.

Walking down the stairs and out of the back entrance, Danielle found herself in a sprawling garden. Rose bushes covered black wrought-iron fencing. The gardens were lush with flowers and flowering trees. She knelt down to smell the aroma of the oversized rose blossoms. Closing her eyes, Danielle drew in a long, deep breath.

Suddenly startled, Danielle's eyes snapped open at the feeling of a cold wet tongue sliding across her cheek.

“Well, if it isn't the courageous little dog from earlier today,” Danielle said as she placed both her hands behind the spotted ears and scratched gently. “I'm so happy to see you again, little one.”

“Cora!” a strong voice called from behind Danielle. “I'm so sorry for that, Señorita, she doesn't usually warm up to strangers that fast.”

“That's quite okay, we're not strangers. We've met before. Today, in fact,” Danielle said, still petting the cute dog that gave her another quick lick.

Danielle's eyes left Cora, looking up at the figure now standing before her. Her heart stopped.

“It's you,” was all Danielle could say. Her mind was moving in a million directions. The eyes she looked up into were exactly the ones she'd seen so many nights in her dreams. This was not at all what she expected. Her mouth was dry and her head was swimming. The eyes belonged to a woman. This woman, God help her, was breathtakingly beautiful and like no other woman she'd seen before.

Danielle tried to stand and fell square on her behind, her trembling legs too weak for the attempt.

“Are you okay? Do you need help?” Maria asked with concern as she brought her hand down to help the woman up.

“No . . . I mean yes. God, I'm so clumsy.” Danielle said. Reaching for the hand extended to her, she grabbed hold and was lifted effortlessly by the strong arm. Still feeling weak in the knees, Danielle fell helplessly into the beautiful woman as she tried to stand.

Maria caught her, one hand on her waist and one on her shoulder.

“I've got you. You okay now?” Maria asked, holding the young woman out at arm's length.

Their eyes meet and for the first time Maria saw the magical green orbs that visited her at night in her dreams. Both women were lost in a questioning gaze. Blinking her eyes, Maria shook her head slightly, trying to focus. She forgot that the women in her arms had not answered her last question.

“What . . . what did you mean by, it's you?” Maria asked at last, very slowly.

Neither woman was quick to break from the touch. Their eyes were locked on each other. Maria thought she saw a blush forming on the attractive face she was mesmerized by.

“I . . . I . . . I simply meant that it was you who helped us against those bandits today. It was you, wasn't it?” Danielle asked through dry lips.

“Yes, it was me, but . . .”

“Maria!” a jubilant voice called out.

The women stepped away from each other and turned to see Rosa coming toward them.

“You have met the princess of France?” Rosa questioned, assuming from their close proximity that they had been introduced.

“Not … not formally, Mother.” Maria's breath caught in her throat for a second as she realized that this was the woman who was meant for her brother.

“Well, let me do the honors then,” Rosa said. “Danielle, princess of France, meet my daughter, Maria.”

“Princess,” Maria said as she removed her hat and bowed before royalty. Her mind was racing along with her heart.

“Please don't do that, and call me Danielle. Everyone does,” Danielle said, winking at Rosa, trying to ease her nerves. Rosa winked back, recognizing that the princess had stolen her line from earlier.

“Very well . . . Danielle,” Maria said, standing and looking into the eyes she had fantasized about.

The smile on Danielle's face melted away as she felt her own name burn like kerosene on a path from her ears to her heart. Like a flickering flame that kept the same beat as her heart, the burn intensified. True, she had heard her name many times, but not like this. Her heart had been waiting to fall and in an instant everything she thought she knew to be true about love was shattered. This was uninvited.

“Mother . . . I'm sure you need help with this evening's preparations.” Maria said, snapping her head to look over at Rosa. She'd been staring at the princess a little too long. The silence unnerved her, making her feel uncomfortable and exposed. “I'll follow you in and give you a hand.”

“Thank you Maria! That would be most appreciated,” Rosa smiled, and headed
back inside the villa.

Safely away from the eyes of her daughter and the princess, Rosa's smile turned to a look of concern. She sensed something new in her daughter. Maria was flustered for lack of a better word and that was something she'd never seen before. What had her daughter just said? 'Let me help you with preparations?' No, this was not her daughter.

'Sweet Mother of Mary,' Rosa prayed to herself, 'Please tell me what I just saw has nothing to do with love?'

“You'll excuse me, Princess . . . I mean, Danielle?” Maria backed away slowly, stumbling over her own feet. She finally turned, picking up the pace to follow her mother.

Cora tilted her head in a lopsided glare, looking at her master's missteps. Even Cora recognized a difference in her. Cora glanced back at her new friend and flopped her head to the other side. The dog let out a soft whimper and trotted toward the villa.

Lost in her own thoughts, Danielle watched the dog scamper away. She understood exactly what Luc had meant earlier about Maria's looks. She had her mother's coloring, cheekbones, and strong jaw, but she stood many hands taller than the older woman did. There was nothing at all frail about her. Her shoulders were at least as wide as her brother's, and her beauty--well, Danielle couldn't begin to describe that, except to say she was stunning.

'What's happening to me? I shouldn't be feeling like this.' Danielle cursed herself for the emotions she couldn't stop. Inwardly she groaned and headed back inside to dress for the evening, hoping she would live through it.

The queen and Danielle were escorted into the dining area. The table was lavishly set; hand-woven baskets held flower arrangements that combined the prettiest roses with multicolored fruits. Large oversized candles sat on top of a red velvet cloth centered down a long wooden table.

Platters of exotic food were staggered down the table. The smell was a mixture of spicy and sweet and filled the room with its aroma.

Fredrick greeted the woman as they entered. He extended his elbow up and as was customary, Danielle placed her hand lightly on top of his outstretched arm. Fredrick held Danielle's chair and helped her to her seat. Luc did the same for the queen, placing her to the left of the princess.

Danielle looked across the table and saw Maria, who returned her gaze steadily. Maria was dressed in a black silk blouse. Black looped braids fastened the buttons on the shirt. The top two were left open, exposing tanned skin. Her hair hung loosely down her back. Maria's hands were resting in her lap but Danielle could still make out the strong muscles of her biceps clinging to the silk shirtsleeves.

Fredrick moved to seat his mother and then returned to sit to the right of Danielle.

Courtly conversation was supposedly one of the ten arts she'd mastered as a French princess, but right now Danielle's voice was silent. Maria was looking at her and the intensity of that burned brighter than the golden candle in front of her and blinded her to anything or anyone else in the room.

Rosa silently watched the exchange and decided to get the conversation started. “Tell me, Catherine, are your accommodations to your suiting?”

“Oh yes, Rosa. Everything here is lovely. I must compliment you and your staff. This dinner looks exquisite. Doesn't it, Danielle?” Catherine smiled, looking lovingly over at her daughter whose attention was clearly not directed toward the conversation.

“Danielle?” Catherine said softly. When she didn't reply, Catherine gently stepped on Danielle's foot underneath the table.

“What's that?” Danielle said, slowly turning her head to look at her mother.

“I said this dinner looks exquisite,” Catherine smiled.

“Oh yes, Mother, absolutely mouth-watering,” Danielle agreed as her eyes went back across the table to the woman on the other side.

This time it was Maria's turn to blush. Whether or not it was intentional, the princess's remark struck Maria as referring to something totally other than food.

'Tell me I did not just turn red,' Maria was thinking to herself. 'She's staring at me a little too intently. God, please let this be nothing more than an intrigue for her.'

Maria needed to believe that the attraction she felt was nothing more than a game for the princess. God help her if it was real. She couldn't allow herself to want anything more than friendship. This was the woman whom her brother was to marry. Maria chastised herself for allowing her heart to override her head. Her brother's happiness must come first.

Maria bit her lip hard, determined to get the upper hand in this situation. She pulled her gaze away and looked over to her brother.

“Danielle, did you know that Fredrick is a master swordsman?” Maria began as she smiled lovingly at her brother.

“Really, it must run in the family,” Danielle replied. “Luc tells me your moves today rivaled the best in the French army.”

“I'm confident of that,” Fredrick interrupted. “Maria is by far the better skilled. In fact, she has taught me much of what I know.”

'So much for moving the attention back to my brother,' Maria thought and ground her teeth in frustration. She decided to keep quiet.

Fredrick turned to the princess and began telling her stories about Maria and their childhood together. Danielle gave him her full attention. She was, after all, extremely interested in this man's sister.

Upon seeing the warm exchange between her son and the princess, Rosa relaxed a little. They seemed be enjoying each other's company.

Throughout the remainder of dinner, Rosa and Catherine talked about their children while Danielle and Fredrick smiled and laughed with each other. Maria exchanged stories of war with Luc and whenever possible stole glances at Danielle. Maria noticed that Danielle was living up to her reputation. The young woman was eating more than most of the other guests, yet weighed the least. She loved the young woman's smile, and her laughter was almost contagious. Her long blonde hair looked pretty arranged in a braid, and her green eyes seemed caring and vibrant.

Maria's mind was questioning her heart. 'She didn't seem the type who would play with someone's affections.' Maria let out a deep breath as her thinking continued. 'Why did it have to be this woman that my heart is opening up to?'

'At least I have you,' Maria thought, looking down to pet her faithful companion that always sat next to her while she ate. This time however, Cora was missing. Maria looked around the room and became a little concerned. A movement from the princess caught her attention.

Maria watched intently as Danielle talked with Fredrick. Every so often, her left hand would disappear under the table. Maria was pretty sure that something was cupped in her hand, and each time it reappeared, the hand was empty.

Slowly bending down, Maria peeked underneath the table. Cora was just taking another morsel from the small fingers. Cora saw movement and looked over at her master as she greedy gulped down the food. Cora titled her head to the side, looking over at squinting eyes. 'I see she's won you over too,' Maria thought as she rolled her eyes and sat up.

Danielle saw Maria sit back in her chair. She looked across and smiled at her, slightly raising her shoulders and lifting her eyebrow in an apologetic motion. She mouthed a silent 'sorry'. Maria couldn't help but smile back and shake her head.

As dinner finished, Danielle and Catherine thanked their hosts for a wonderful dinner. Rosa announced that the evening's festivities would continue in the patio garden.

The entire dinner party moved in a long line through the dining room.

Fredrick escorted Danielle through the arched doorway to the patio. Numerous torches illuminated the area. Colorful paper decorations hung from threads, swaying in the breeze.

Music filled Danielle's ears. It was vibrant and passionate and cut through her like a knife. The guitars were not plucked, but strummed. Spanish women dressed in black and red dresses danced to the beat. Their black thick-heeled shoes stomped out every note. Their tightly hung skirts flared at the bottom and swayed as their arms waved seductively through the moist nighttime air. An instrument unfamiliar to Danielle was clicking in their hands. Danielle's heart was beating in unison with the music. Absorbed in the rhythms, she closed her eyes.

Fredrick leaned down and whispered into her ear. “Does this music suit you, Señorita?”

“It's magnificent,” Danielle said as she slowly opened her eyes and smiled.

Maria was standing across the patio, watching the interaction. Her brother seemed happy and showed signs of true enjoyment. She watched his lips move close to Danielle's ear and whisper something. The ache in her heart grew stronger. This was a torture she had never planned on. Her body was darkened in pain but her eyes were bathed in light — the light of the smile on Danielle's lips sang to her soul.

The music suddenly changed. The tempo was more rhythmic and the beats more pronounced. The tones resonated strong and sultry.

“What is this, Fredrick?” Danielle asked.

“This, Danielle, is music to tango to,” Fredrick replied. “Do you know about the dance called the tango?”

“I'm afraid not,” Danielle said.

“Well, Danielle,” Fredrick drew closer. “Maria is magnificent at it. Let's see if we can talk her into showing you how the tango is done.”

“Maria!” Fredrick shouted over the music. “The princess would like to see how the tango is danced. Please dance for us. You are the most talented dancer among us.”

Maria saw the look of honest pleasure in her brother's eyes. His request was innocent, but Maria didn't feel much like dancing this evening. She hesitated to answer.

“Come on Maria, you must show our guests the proper way to tango,” Fredrick pleaded, smiling at his older sister and waving his hand motioning her out of the shadows and onto the dance floor. Everyone joined in with words of encouragement.

All eyes were on her. Maria walked to edge of the dance floor. One of the young Spanish dancers came to her side.

“Isabel is a hired dancer. Maria taught her the dance,” Fredrick said softly to Danielle. “They will show you the tango at its best. Watch closely, Danielle.”

Danielle swallowed hard. Watching closely wouldn't be a problem as far as she was concerned.

Maria and the young woman walked to the center of the floor. The woman stood in front of Maria, her back pressed against Maria's chest. Maria brought her hand down and rested it flat against Isabel's stomach. Her other hand held Isabel's hand.

Danielle's breathing changed immediately. She sat as silent as possible but noticed her chest rising quicker.

The motion that started the dance was quick. Maria whirled Isabel in a quick turn, bringing her around 180 degrees. Their faces were inches from one another.

Danielle wasn't sure if it was the wine, the spicy food, or the humid night air that was causing her to feel hot. She felt a small drop of perspiration roll down her back.

The dancing continued. Maria's hand was on the hollow of the other woman's back, hidden in its soft spot. The steps were wide and exaggerated and the two women were hardly ever more than inches from one another. The dance was cheek to cheek and legs intertwined. Many times during the dance, Maria reached her hand around Isabel's back, pulling her closer to the beat of the music. It was the most seductive dance Danielle had ever seen.

Danielle felt weak, almost faint. Everything disappeared. Her eyes were focused on Maria, whose skin glistened as her hair whipped back and forth with the rhythm of the steps. Maria's tight black pants clung to her thighs. Danielle closed her eyes, lost in the music and her own dreams. She saw Maria's eyes inches from her face and fantasized that it was she in Maria's arms. A moan escaped her lips as the music came to an end.

Danielle's eyes popped open and immediately came to rest on the blue eyes of Maria, who held the young dancer in her arms. Everyone was clapping. Fredrick walked out to thank his sister for the beautiful display of the tango. Danielle sat still. A small tear fell from her eye. She longed to feel Maria's strong arms hold her, and the realization of that overwhelmed her. She was helpless to this desire and it frightened her.

Fredrick greeted Maria in the middle of the dance floor. As he escorted her back to the shadows of the patio he whispered some words for her ears only. “I think the princess is having a very nice evening. She has an amazing sense of humor, Maria. Did you see her smile?” he asked, leaning on his older sister's shoulder and smiling shyly at her.

“Do you like her, Fredrick?” Maria hesitated in her question, but needed to hear the words come out of her brother's mouth. She hoped it would put an end to her ridiculous longing.

“She seems to be genuine. I guess I'm a little surprised. I had pictured her to be very different. Didn't you?” Fredrick inquired.

“Yes, Fredrick, she is far different than I ever imagined. Please excuse me, I'm a little tired this evening. It's been a long day for me. Go back to her and enjoy yourself. We'll talk more tomorrow.” Maria said, grabbing her brother's arm and squeezing tightly, giving him the best fake smile she could muster.

Fredrick smiled back and returned to Danielle.

Maria moved quietly through the darkness of the garden. Her raw emotions made it impossible for her to stay and watch any longer. 'How could this be happening?' She winced, wrestling with her feelings as she walked toward the stables.

'A trip might be the answer,' she thought. 'I'll make up some excuse as to why I must leave and that will take me away from this misery.'

Staying at the villa would only be asking for trouble. Maria was sure that she could rein in her emotions if her feelings were not returned, but judging by the princess's reaction, the attraction was somehow mutual. Maybe the princess was just playing a game, but either way, Maria decided not to stay and be a participant.

Maria opened the door to the stables and made her way to the tack room. Preparing for her trip tonight would save time in the morning, allowing her to get an early start. She hoped she could avoid any further interaction with Danielle.

“What do you think, mi amiga?” Maria looked down to her companion. “Does a trip sound like fun to you? We'll head north and stop along the ocean. The ocean wind will clear our minds,” she said, reaching down to pet the sitting dog.

Cora let out a small bark and wagged her tail as Maria turned back to her preparations. The dog continued to watch her master until she heard a sound coming from outside the stables. Immediately she stood on all fours and began a low growl.

“What is it, Cora?” Maria said very softly. The dog's hearing was excellent and Maria knew that she never gave a false alarm. Following Cora's eyes to the door, Maria reached for the sword that lay on the wooden table. Weapon in hand, she slowly walked to the entranceway.

She stepped out into the evening air and began a slow survey of the area. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. Walking past a small row of trees, Maria turned around quickly when she felt a small hand come to rest on her waist. The arm pulled her closer and before Maria could react, a very soft mouth tasted her lips.

“Ah Maria, it's been way too long,” Isabel's sultry voice mumbled as she moved in to attack her target again.

“Wait!” Maria said, holding the woman off with her free hand. “My God, Isabel, I could have hurt you. You know better than to sneak up on me like that.”

“Don't tell me you didn't think I would come to you? Yes, it has been over a year since I was here, but after our dance this evening, I thought you'd be waiting for me,” she said, bringing her hand up to stroke Maria's cheek.

“No, Isabel, this isn't what I planned tonight. You know I think you're lovely, but what we did last year will have to remain in the past.” Maria said, softly grabbing the small hand and dropping it to the woman's side.

“What's this about, Maria? You're telling me you don't want me? Maybe you just need a little reminder of how good it felt,” Isabel said as she brought her hand back up and slipped it in the opening of Maria's shirt, gently cupping her breast.

“Please, Isabel!” Maria managed to choke out.

“Come on now, Maria. Why would you be fighting this? Unless . . . unless someone else is bringing you pleasure these days. Is that what this is about?” Isabel baited her as she began light kisses up the side of Maria's neck. Her hand squeezed the firm breast and she let her thumb brush back and forth across a taut nipple.

Maria backed away, trying to regain her composure. She couldn't help but feel aroused. She was thinking of Danielle as she found herself pinned between a tree and Isabel's hands.

“It's all right, Maria. We both know that we've never claimed this was anything more than a night of fun once in a while. Surely your new plaything won't mind. She doesn't even have to know.” Isabel said as she began to unbuckle Maria's leather belt.

“That's . . . not . . . it . . . Isabel,” Maria was trying to speak but her head was swimming. Her body was betraying her. All night she had thought of this, only it was Danielle's lips and hands she imagined feeding her desire. She closed her eyes and let her mind conjure up the green orbs of her dreams.

Isabel brought her mouth back to Maria's and felt the response she had hoped for. Maria finally dropped her sword and brought her hands up around Isabel's neck, pulling her in for a heated kiss. Isabel continued working Maria's belt and buttons until she had enough room to slip her hand into her pants. Pushing her hand lower, she cupped her fingers up so they could slide into the wetness between Maria's legs. Maria moaned and moved her hips down into the fingers. Their kisses deepened.

“I knew you wanted me.” Isabel sighed.

“No!” Maria said, opening her eyes as she heard the voice that was not Danielle's. This was not the woman she wanted and, God help her, she couldn't use Isabel in this way. “I'm sorry Isabel. I . . . I can't.”

Isabel removed her hands and slowly stepped back to look at Maria. She saw tears forming in the beautiful woman's eyes. Isabel realized this was no longer a game to Maria. “You must love this woman, Maria.”

Maria lowered her head and stared at the ground. She feared that was exactly what was wrong with her.

“I'm so sorry, Maria. I didn't know.” Isabel said softly. “This woman . . . she's very lucky, Maria.”

Maria just continued to stare at the ground. She never looked back up. Isabel stepped closer and kissed Maria on the check. She turned, and as mysteriously as she had appeared, was gone.

Only a few seconds passed while Maria stood rooted to the same place, but it felt like a lifetime. The moon was shining brightly, casting shadows in the dark of the night. In the distance she heard the voices of the guests as the music played on. She had never before thought about feeling lonely, but right now she felt isolated from the rest of the world. She finally picked up her sword and headed back into the stables.

Fredrick and Danielle talked about Spain, his father, and the changes in his country. Fredrick was pleased that Danielle was interested and, even more intriguing, she was intelligent and insightful. It amazed Fredrick that a woman of great means would even bother to care about such things, yet she knew more about politics and military tactics than he did. Beautiful and knowledgeable — Fredrick could hardly believe his good fortune.

Fredrick asked Danielle to dance when the music changed to a waltz. She was polite and attentive, just as she had promised her mother she would be. Fredrick was nothing but a gentleman and for that Danielle was truly thankful. It made the whole thing a tiny bit easier.

Her mind drifted to Maria as Fredrick gently led her around the dance floor. The dark woman had disappeared after the tango and Danielle wondered where she might be. She felt herself being whirled in a circle as her head imagined Maria's blue eyes calling to her. The movement of the dance and her own illusions made her feel dizzy. She actually thought she might faint and pulled away, looking up at Fredrick.

“Are you all right, Danielle?” Fredrick asked, concerned.

“I'm a little dizzy, that's all. I think I'm tired from the travel. I'm sorry, Fredrick, but I think I must retire for the evening.”

“There's no need to apologize, Danielle. You must be exhausted. Let me escort you inside? ” Fredrick extended his had to Danielle.

Danielle said her good-byes to Rosa and her mother and allowed herself to be led inside. Fredrick kissed the back of her hand and thanked her for a lovely evening. Danielle made her way upstairs to her room.

After closing the door, Danielle rocked back on her heels, her back coming to rest on the wooden frame. Her thoughts wandered to the implications of her feelings, which weighed heavily on her heart. What was she going to do? Her attraction to Maria was unmistakable. Her heart led the way in this dilemma. She felt herself being pulled into Maria's arms, even if the outcome was impossible. A princess of France could not decide to give her heart to a woman; it simply would not be tolerated.

Danielle made her way to the dressing table and removed her journal. She felt a great need to write some of these feeling down. Maybe, she thought, the writing would help her to sort out this mess. She had used poetry as a means of expression many times before and hoped it would calm her now, as it always had.

She turned up the wick on the kerosene lamp and dipped the quill into the ink. Her thoughts went to Maria and she closed her eyes for a moment, trying to decide were to start. Her mind automatically went to the vision of the tango. She remembered her feelings as she had watched the women move together and how her mind had effortlessly put herself in Maria's arms. She opened her eyes and began to write.

Light caresses her jet, black hair reflecting silver hue,
Why is my heart pounding so, within my breast anew?
Ignited within, a burning flame, fueled with rhythmic desire,
My soul invades the body in her arms, charged with raging fire.
Eyes, blue as the mid-day sky fevered blood heating my senses,
Each move she makes sends a scalding surge, destroying my defenses.
Fervent hands pressed against me, leading openly to follow,
Catering to my need, venture beyond my chambers hollow.
Every move an impression, a caress like the wings of a dove,
Strong thighs, grazed cheeks, inducing a flow of liquid love.
What is this unknown beast feeding within my very core?
Sensations ebb like the driven tide, crashing into the shore.
A longing older than time, sends signals invading 'tween my thighs
The breath pushing from my burning lungs, releases sensual sighs.
A feeling new to me I don't understand, am I compromising my will?
Shall I allow her to take my soul, a need only she can fulfill.
Nothing else has ever charged my flesh with such intensive heat
I know that I am trapped within her demanding movements beat.
I feel my soul leave my body, uniting with hers in a rhythmic caress
There is no turning back, for she has now claimed me to possess.
Emotions flooded throughout me, sensation after sensation,
No other can reach within me, the depth allowed her penetration.
My spinning wheel of fate has landed, on this time and space,
And I'm destined to dance at her side, for a lifetime in this place.

Danielle laid down the quill as a tear fell onto the page, blurring the word “fate.” She leaned back and brought her hands to her face. The tears fell in earnest.

“Oh, God, please help me. I cannot judge what is right or what is wrong. I only know that my heart always has and always will belong to these blue eyes,” Danielle whispered in a prayer. “It is fate that has brought me to her. I prayed for this and you answered my prayers. How can I be expected to let this opportunity pass? I must know if her heart also calls for mine. Please give me strength to override my fears. I must talk to her. Lord be with me, I pray.”

That evening as Danielle lay in bed, her visions were more passionate than ever. She dreamt of the crystal blue eyes, beautiful face and the soft lips of Maria, capturing her waiting mouth. Not even sleep allowed her peace from this longing as she tossed and turned, overheated by her dreams.

Maria was up before dawn. Sleep never found her during the night. She tossed and turned with the thoughts in her head.

“I've only known Danielle for a day, but my heart feels like she's has been with me for a lifetime,” Maria said to her ever-present companion, who was curled up on the bed next to a travel bag.

“I've never run from anything in my life and here I am leaving what might have been my only true chance at love. If Fredrick finally feels the happiness he deserves, that would at least give me some rest from this torment,” she said as she stuffed the last garment into the bag.

“Come on, Cora, let's get a little practice in before the villa wakes up. Maybe that will help me relax.” Maria picked up her bag and headed for the door. Looking down, she noticed something--rather, some dog--missing. Maria turned around and saw Cora with her paws firmly placed over her nose, blocking any light to her eyes.

“Come on, sleepyhead. I promise to let you rest tonight, mi amiga,” Maria laughed at the sight of the tired dog. “We'll find a quiet little place under the stars and I'll let you sleep the night away.”

Cora let out a couple of very heavy snorts, finally standing and then jumping off the bed. Stretching her front legs out, she raised her furry hindquarters in the air and yawned. She looked up at Maria and promptly sat down.

“Stalling is not going helping your cause,” Maria said a little more sternly.

Cora whimpered, stood on all fours and shook, starting with her nose and ending with her tail. Finally, she put one paw in front of the other and slowly made her way to the door.

“Who taught you this flair for the dramatic? It certainly wasn't me!” Maria laughed as she watched a droopy tail lead the way.

Maria quietly made her way out of the villa and into the back garden. She often practiced her skills in these peaceful surroundings.

The sun began to break over the horizon as Maria inspected her blade. She started with her usual stretches. Well-practiced lunges always limbered her up and she needed to warm up the muscles that were tight from no sleep. The process was performed routinely and to someone watching for the first time, it might appear to be some form of meditation instead of the honing of a deadly art. She worked her way through numerous defensive maneuvers, in a slow and methodical way, with eyes closed.

Danielle looked down from her balcony. The sun was just starting to shine on the garden area, but even in the shadows of darkness, she knew it was Maria below her. Standing silently, Danielle watched in awe as Maria performed her exercises. The muscles under the bronzed skin strained against her clothing. The sun broke into the sky like a spotlight and shone on Maria's glowing face. Danielle felt her heart stir like it always did when she looked at the tall woman. Her breath was caught in her throat. Maria was so beautiful.

Maria felt someone watching her. Turning around toward the villa, she opened her eyes and saw a figure move away from the window of the balcony. She recognized the retreating form immediately.

'See something interesting, Princess?' Maria thought to herself. 'Why would you be so shy as to move from my eyes? I know that you look at me. Your eyes burned a hole in my soul yesterday and now you hide from me? What is this game you play?'

Danielle had both her hands on her face as she leaned against the wall in her room. “Why did I do that?” she said quietly. “She must have seen me. She probably thinks I'm some kind of child. Why does the sight of her cause me to lose my senses?”

Danielle moved to the interior of the room, avoiding the window. She decided to dress and then talk to Maria while everyone else was still asleep. This might be her only chance. Her heart raced as she selected the burgundy velvet dress that her mother said accented her figure in all the right places. She wanted to look perfect for Maria. She checked her hair and pinched her cheeks. With trembling legs she walked out of her room.

Maria sat down on the wooden bench in the garden, staring at the ground. It wouldn't be long now before her mother was up and in the kitchen making sure everything was being handled for the morning meal. The staff at the villa was excellent and dedicated in every way to their family, but Maria knew her mother would want everything to be perfect.

Taking a deep breath, Maria decided to get her good-bye over with. Her plan was to tell her mother that she knew where Ortega was hiding and that she was going to the king of Spain in Madrid with the information. Most of this tale was true. She was fairly certain she knew where the coward was hiding, but she would not be visiting the king. She wanted to take care of Ortega herself someday. She could have killed him at the last encounter but chose not to. She wouldn't endanger the lives of their guests with a threat of retaliation from his men if she took his life. That was the only reason she'd spared him his pathetic existence. One day, after things were more settled, Maria would pay Ortega a visit.

“Hello, Maria,” Danielle said softly.

Maria's head snapped up in surprise at the sight of Danielle standing before her. She started to rise but was stopped by a hand on her arm.

“Please don't get up,” Danielle said. “May I sit with you?”

Maria looked over at the small hand and then up at the green eyes. “Yes, of course, Princess. Please be seated.”

“I thought I told you to call me Danielle.” The princess smiled and removed her hand as she sat down.

“Yes, excuse me, Danielle. I wasn't expecting to have a visitor this early in the morning. You startled me,” Maria said.

“I saw you from my window,” Danielle said, glancing at Maria sideways, her head slightly bowed. “I thought if I came down, we might get a chance to talk.”

“I thought it was you that scurried away,” Maria said, smiling slightly.

“Sorry about that, I haven't been caught spying since I was a child,” Danielle laughed.

“Was that a favorite game of yours in your youth?” Maria inquired.

“As a matter of fact, I was quite good at it. My father would send half of the staff searching for me. What he didn't know was that I would hide behind the heavy curtains in his study and listen to all of the plans to be carried out. I knew more than most about his activities. All the time he thought I was off playing with dolls,” Danielle snickered and shrugged her shoulders.

“What about you, Maria? Did you have a favorite game?” she asked, smiling as she turned to face the tall woman.

Maria looked over at Danielle, searching her face. She felt confused. She needed to know what the princess wanted from her. Her heart could not take any more games.

“Is this what you are doing now? Playing the spy? Why were you watching me this morning, and for that matter, why were you staring at me last night?” Maria asked a little too sternly.

Danielle swallowed hard. “I . . . I didn't mean to offend you, Maria. I . . . I was just, I was just . . .

“You were just what?” Maria asked as she stood up and looked down at the princess.

“I was just trying to get to know you better. I felt a connection . . . and, um . . .”

“Is this some sort of intrigue for you?” Maria demanded.

Danielle stood up, her face flushing. “What? Is that what you think?” she murmured disbelievingly. “Do the Spanish always think so little of people? What in my character has led you to believe that I would hold you in such low esteem when the opposite is true! I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and your family. I would never spy on you. I care for you deeply, Maria, and I . . . I . . . ”

Danielle couldn't complete her thoughts. She had not expected this to go so badly and dropped her head as tears formed in her eyes.

“You . . . you care for me?” Maria asked softly, ashamed. It was obvious to her now that Danielle wasn't playing a game. She hadn't been completely sure until this very moment. The realization scared the life out of Maria. This meant Danielle's feelings were true.

“What?” Danielle asked, looking up slowly, sniffing back her tears.

“You care for me, Danielle?” Maria asked again, softly.

“Yes, Maria, very much,” Danielle said as her tears flowed heavier.

“Please don't cry, Danielle,” Maria said as she reached into her back pocket and offered her a handkerchief. “I'm so sorry I raised my voice at you. I didn't mean to react that way. I was completely out of line and I'm sorry.”

Danielle took the embroidered cloth and wiped the tears from her eyes. She looked at Maria, who seemed to be struggling to decide what to say next.

“I wasn't sure what was happening between us,” Maria said. It was both a statement and a question.

“I was hoping you could tell me. I've been trying to understand my feelings since I first saw you in the garden,” Danielle said, still trying to control her emotions.

Maria's heart was pounding fast. “We need to remember the reason you came to Spain,” Maria said, making sure that whatever happened next, at least Danielle knew where she stood on that subject.

“Maria, do you care for me?” Danielle asked, moving closer to the tall beauty.

This was the hardest question she would ever answer. She knew the best thing to do—lie. Tell the princess that she understood her feelings and not to worry, she wouldn't tell anyone, but no, she didn't have the same feelings for her. 'Remember Fredrick! Remember Fredrick!' The thoughts were pounding in her head. She looked at the ground.

“Fredrick cares for you, Danielle. He told me as much. He's my brother and . . .”

“Maria, I'm not asking you about your brother. Fredrick is the best of men, but it's not his eyes I've seen in my dreams since I was fourteen,” Danielle said.

Maria raised her head to look into Danielle's eyes. Her mind registered immediately the implications of Danielle's confession of her recurring dreams. Their eyes had visited each other for years. Maria's heart was breaking.

“What is it, Maria?” Danielle asked as she watched the dark complexion turn pale. She brought her hands up and cupped the face that she longed to touch.

“You've had the same dreams, haven't you?” Danielle asked, but in her heart she already knew the answer.

“I . . . I . . . it doesn't matter! This can't work!” Maria gasped for breath and stepped away. “You're the princess of France, Danielle. You're here to marry my brother. Don't you understand?”

“Maria, please? Please, Maria,” Danielle pleaded as she grabbed Maria's arm and pulled her back around. “Believe me, I've agonized over this. I've tried to fight this feeling, but it's no use, Maria. My heart is calling for you and as much as that scares me, I cannot deny my feelings.”

“I'm begging you, Danielle. Don't do this! We can't win in this situation. You can't ask me to hurt my brother. I have my family to think about and this country. What about France, and your family? What do you think they'll say?” Maria asked as her heart grieved for what could have been.

“We've done nothing to hurt anyone, Maria.”

“True, and if we had an ounce of sense left, we'd keep it that way,” Maria added. “I'm leaving this morning. I have it all planned.” The fear crept through her every word.

“Look at me, Maria,” Danielle demanded.

“What? What is it you would have me do?” Maria cried out and looked into Danielle's eyes once more.

“I would have you stay and not run from this,” Danielle began. “Don't you think this scares me too? My God, Maria, I understand the implications, but the thought of having you this close to me and never exploring what fate has in store for us scares me even more. We were destined to be in each other's lives!”

“It cannot be! I must leave!” Maria said. She was close to breaking and clenched her hands into tightly balled fists, closing her eyes in frustration.

“If you think that is your answer, you are sorely mistaken. Running away will only fill your path with more questions. Know this, Maria—you could put the distance of the stars between us and that would not stop my heart from beating at the same time as yours!” Danielle said, her tears flowing again.

Maria's closed fists relaxed as her soul was filled with the love that broke down her crumbling defenses. She opened her eyes and looked at the woman she knew was her match in every way. “Why do you torture me so with these words of love?” Maria asked softly, sighing in defeat and staring at the most beautiful sight in the world.

“Because, Maria, I can't seem to help myself when it comes to you.” Danielle smiled lovingly through her tears at the woman who had stolen her heart.

Maria gazed at Danielle's smile and nothing else mattered; the fear, the guilt, the need to be strong all vanished. Before she even realized it, she'd closed the few steps remaining between them. She placed her hand on Danielle's cheek and leaned down, inches from two perfect lips. She breathed in Danielle's scent and, lost in her longing, kissed the woman she wanted more than life itself.

Danielle moaned and responded to the touch, causing Maria to pull her closer as the kiss intensified.

“Take your hands off her NOW, Maria!” Fredrick shouted from the doorway.

Both women stepped back in a hurry. Their perfect moment shattered.

Maria took one look at her brother's expression and grimaced. Hatred was the only thing to describe it. She couldn't believe she'd lost her composure and let her heart override her head--the very thing she promised herself she wouldn't do. She hated herself for giving into her desire.

“How dare you, Maria!” Fredrick shouted, and started coming at his sister. “How could you bring such disgrace to this house? I have turned my head at your past indiscretions and allowed you your unnatural ways, but you have gone too far this time!”

“Wait, Fredrick!” Danielle shouted.

“Please stay out of this, Danielle,” Maria said softly, holding her arm out to keep the princess from moving between her and her brother. “Step away and let me handle this.”

“How could you seduce such an innocent young woman and take advantage of her? I am disgusted with you!” Fredrick quickly closed the gap between himself and Maria.

“Princess, please forgive me for not seeing this earlier. I should have warned you about her. I am so sorry you were put in this position. You are not to blame in any way, ” Fredrick said, looking over at Danielle and then quickly turning back to his sister.

Maria felt her stomach turn. She couldn't believe her brother would think that she would do anything like what he was accusing her of. The way he looked at her and the words he shouted at her felt like a knife being plunged into her heart. Nothing had ever made her feel as bad as this, not even the death of her father.

“Aren't you going to say anything, Maria?” Fredrick asked as he drew his sword, still advancing in her direction.

Maria looked at him in shock. His rage consumed him. This was a look Maria knew all too well. He was beyond reason. In this state he was capable of anything, and the thought that he might hurt her rang true in Maria's mind. Part of her wished it to be so. Death was the only thing that would bring an end to the anguish of this moment. She considered allowing him to take her life, but she knew that later, when he had time to register what he had done, his guilt at such an action would destroy him. She couldn't allow that.

The tip of his sword sailed by her neck as a warning.

“Pick up your sword, Maria!” Fredrick demanded.

“I will not fight you, Fredrick,” Maria said as she stepped back, away from his assault. “Calm down, brother. You're scaring me.”

Danielle watched in horror, helpless. She wanted to say something, anything, to make this stop. She was terrified. “Please stop this!” Danielle begged.

Cora began barking and made a run at Fredrick. Maria saw the movement from the corner of her eye and yelled. “Stay, Cora!”

The dog came to a halt but continued to bark. Danielle immediately went to the dog's side and knelt down to hold her in place.

“Come on, Maria,” Fredrick yelled, “Try and defend your vile actions.”

Fredrick swiped his blade in Maria's direction twice more. She darted out of the way, backing up each time. His anger was building and his movements were becoming more threatening. Out of frustration, she picked up her weapon, but only to block the blows that might come from Frederick's sword. She could not allow him to physically hurt her. She hated to do it, but the only way she could think of to defuse this situation was to agree with him.

“Fredrick,” Maria said calmly “You're right. I have disgraced you and this family. Allow me to leave here. I will not return. Someday, I hope you will forgive me.”

As she spoke she felt her heart turn cold. The look from her brother devastated her. She never thought he could despise her in this way.

“How could you do this, Maria?” Fredrick shouted in utter frustration as he lunged at Maria with his weapon fully extended.

Maria blocked the blow, but was stunned by the force of his actions. He'd meant to harm her that time, and it sickened her.

“Please, Fredrick, stop this before something happens that we won't be able to walk away from,” Maria pleaded, feeling herself weaken in shame and grief.

Cora was struggling in Danielle's arms, barking as she fought to break free. Danielle held on as tight as she could, but the dog's will to protect what she loved was too great. Cora jumped up hard, and slipped through the small arms, on a dead run for Fredrick.

“I will never forgive you,” Fredrick cried out and stepped toward Maria as he pushed the sword forward once more.

“No, little one!” Danielle yelled.

Maria watched in horror as her beloved dog came between her and her brother.

“No, Cora!” Maria yelled, but it was too late.

Cora let out a high pitched yelp and fell to the ground.

Fredrick staggered back, as shocked as his sister. He felt the tip of his sword enter the flesh of the dog and immediately withdrew the blade. He shook his head and blinked his eyes like he was waking up from a bad dream.

“NO!” Maria yelled, dropping her weapon and falling to her knees. She looked down at Cora, watching as blood began to darken the ground beneath the dog's limp body.

Fredrick looked over at Danielle, who was visibly shaken. She looked back at him with tears in her eyes. Fredrick staggered back a few more steps.

“What in heaven's name is going on out there?” Rosa called from the doorway. She looked at her son and then to the ground where Maria sat hunched over.

Running over to them, Rosa saw the injured dog and Fredrick, who still held his sword in hand, blood dripping from the tip. “Fredrick, what's happened here?”

Fredrick couldn't speak. He looked from his mother to Maria and then to Danielle. He turned and ran for the stables as quickly as his feet would carry him.

“Maria, what in God's name is going on?” Rosa asked, the emotion welling up inside her causing her voice to crack.

Maria slowly and gently picked up Cora and without a word walked toward the villa.

Danielle was in shock. She felt responsible for everything that had just happened. Her heart was breaking with guilt and sadness. She started to follow Maria, but Rosa reached out and touched her arm.

“Danielle, what is going on?”

Before Danielle could answer Fredrick, poised atop his horse, flew by in a fast gallop. His eyes were averted, but Danielle could tell where tears had fallen on his cheeks. Losing control of her emotions, she pulled away from Rosa and ran to the villa.

She walked into the kitchen, where all eyes were on her. Unnerved by the silence, she asked the cook where Maria had gone and followed the pointing finger to a room adjacent to the kitchen.

Maria laid Cora on a blanket on the table. She wrapped a strip of linen around Cora's front leg, bringing it underneath the dog as carefully as she could, then placed a folded pad over the wound where the blade had entered, holding it down firmly. Finally, she tied the strip tightly around the shoulder. Cora whimpered in pain.

“Hang on, mi amiga.” Maria spoke in soft soothing tones. “ I've got to get this bleeding stopped and see how bad this wound is, my brave little friend.”

The door swung open and Maria looked up. Danielle stood in the doorway with tears streaming down her face.

“I'm so sorry, Maria,” Danielle said, through her tears. “What can we do?”

“Haven't WE done enough?” Maria muttered, and turned her attention back to Cora.

Danielle knew Maria was distraught and wasn't surprised by the tension she felt between them. She came closer to the table. “Oh my, little one, I'm so sorry,” she said as she tenderly petted the dog's head. Cora's eyes opened slightly at the touch.

“Will she be all right, Maria?” Danielle asked hesitantly.

“I have no idea,” Maria said quietly.

As she looked up at Danielle, a scowl furrowed her brow as Maria's frustration came to the surface. “I begged you to leave me alone, didn't I? I told you we couldn't act on the feelings and yet you pushed and you pushed and now look what's happened! God help me, I should have left last night!” Maria shook her head in disbelief at how quickly everything had unraveled.

“I'm so sorry, Maria,” Danielle said, through her tears. She felt both of their emotions sitting on the surface.

“Everything I've loved is changed forever and it was all because of a moment's weakness. How could I have been so foolish? My brother will never think of me in the same way again. I have made such a mess of this.” Maria said.

“None of this is your fault, Maria,” Danielle said, her voice shaking.

Maria knew she needed to be alone. Her anger would only cause her to say something she'd regret later. “Please leave me alone, Princess. There is nothing you can do here. I need to be with Cora. She needs my full attention.”

All the horror, the outrage, drained out of Maria, leaving her oddly numb. She walked away to gather more cloth and warm water.

Danielle fell silent as she watched Maria walk away. She hadn't missed the use of the word “princess” instead of her name. She could think of nothing to say to make any of this better. She felt responsible for causing this ugly war between brother and sister and for letting Cora slip through her hands. She didn't blame Maria for hating her or for building the wall back up between them. It hurt her but she understood the reason. Slowly she turned around and left the room as she continued to cry.

Rosa stepped out of the way as Danielle ran past her, heading toward the staircase. She was deeply disturbed by what she'd seen in the garden and now the look and tears on Danielle's face made her more upset. Rosa could only imagine the worst. Stepping through the door, she saw Maria caring for the fallen dog.

“Maria, is Cora all right?”

“I don't know, Mother. I'm trying to get the bleeding to stop. I can't tell if the blade penetrated any organs.” Maria sighed. “The blade didn't go all the way through.”

Rosa stepped closer. Maria's hand was covered in blood where she held the packing down. Looking in her daughter's eyes she saw tears of emotion. Maria loved this dog. They'd been inseparable from the moment that her husband brought home the small pup and placed it into Maria's hands. Now was not the time to question her child about everything that had happened.

“Why don't you let me do this while you ride down and get Doctor Sanar,” Rosa offered. “He's very skilled and you know he'd do anything to help Cora. He has that medicine that makes the blood clot. That could make a difference here.”

Maria looked over at her mother, feeling the depth of her caring and wondering how much longer she would have that once Fredrick told her the truth of the morning's activities. 'Will she hate me also?' She needed her mother's love and strength, which had always been a source of inspiration to Maria.

“Thank you, Mother,” Maria said as her mother's hand replaced hers on the wound. Before she left she turned and put a small kiss on her mother's cheek. “I love you.”

“Hurry now, Maria!” Rosa said urgently as she watched her daughter leave. From the look in her daughter's eyes, Rosa knew that whatever had taken place that morning between brother and sister had everything to do with Danielle. Shaking her head in worry, she used her free hand to pet Cora. In a soothing voice she whispered words of encouragement to the dog. “You must be strong, little one. This family needs your courage. We have a lot of healing to do.”

Maria mounted her horse and took off down the dirt road. She'd gone less than a quarter-mile when she saw the doctor's carriage coming in her direction. Before she could say anything, the doctor addressed her.

“Maria, your brother said that there's been an accident and Cora's been hurt badly. Do you need my help?” the doctor yelled from the window of his carriage.

“Yes . . . I . . . I can't get the bleeding to stop,” Maria said. She wasn't out of breath, but stunned that Fredrick would have gone for help. She couldn't believe that somehow through his rage he had managed to care at all about what happened to Cora. It gave her a glimmer of hope.

“Let's not waste any time. Lead the way, Maria,” Doctor Sanar said hurriedly.

The doctor worked on Cora behind closed doors while Maria assisted. Rosa sat in the kitchen, waiting for Fredrick to return.

Time passed with no sign of Fredrick, and Danielle still in her room. The rest of the villa was beginning to stir with the usual morning activities and Rosa was still in the dark about the cause of the tragedy.

Finally the doctor walked though the door. Rosa stood. “Is she all right?”

“We've got the bleeding stopped and I don't think any organs were injured. She won't be able to use her front leg for a while, but I don't think she'll have any nerve damage,” the doctor said. “She's a very lucky little dog.”

“Oh, thank God,” Rosa let out a deep breath and brought her hand to her chest. “Thank you so much for your help, doctor.”

“It's no problem. I'm always here to help you,” he said as she escorted him to the door and out to his waiting carriage. “I'll check back later.”

Rosa waved goodbye and walked back in to check on her daughter who was coming out of the small room, carrying Cora gingerly in her arms.

“I'm taking her to the stables, where I can make her comfortable and keep an eye on her,” Maria said to her mother.

“I'll be out in a minute, Maria,” Rosa said, smiling at her daughter. “I'm so glad she's going to be all right.”

“Me too, mother,” Maria said, very softly.

Rosa planned on giving her daughter a couple of minutes alone with Cora to get her settled, but then she was going to get some answers from her — or at least try.

Maria made a bed of hay and covered it with a horse blanket, then placed Cora on the bedding. The little dog looked out through half closed eyes as Maria made sure that Cora was resting peacefully. The thought of losing her pet as well as her brother was too much to take. Her hands began to tremble as she looked down at her best friend. “Don't you ever disobey my orders again. You hear me?” Maria said shortly. Tears came to her eyes and she wiped them away with one hand. With the other she stroked Cora's head.

Danielle watched from her second floor balcony as Maria carried the little dog to the stables. She couldn't tell what shape Cora was in and it worried her beyond belief. She wanted more than anything to be with Maria right now. The depth of her emotions for Maria would not allow her to stay away even if Maria hated her. She deliberately slipped out of her room and through the front door, managing to avoid the kitchen, the staring eyes, and Rosa.

Maria sat next to Cora, her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. The events of the morning kept playing over and over like a nightmare. 'What did I think I was doing? I was so strong. I almost made it and then – I kissed her. Oh, God, I kissed her and she . . . she kissed me back.' Maria swallowed hard at the memory.

Rosa started to walk out the back door but stopped when she spotted Danielle coming around the corner of the villa. 'Lord, this is not going to be easy, is it,' she thought to herself. 'These two are going to be the death of me yet.' She backed up and went inside, deciding to let them talk before she got involved. 'Please, dear God, don't allow this to tear my family apart.'

Danielle glanced over at the villa and around the gardens. There was no sign of Fredrick or Rosa, so she continued on to the stables, just beyond a row of dense trees. Her thoughts were on Maria as she approached the big wooden doors. Suddenly, she felt herself pulled back by a strong arm as a large hand covered her mouth. Surprised and alarmed, she did what Luc had taught her and brought the heel of her shoe down as hard as she could along a shin and into the foot of her attacker. The large hand fell from her mouth and she heard a moan from behind her.

She struggled but the arm still held her.

“Maria, Mari - ” she screamed, but suddenly a terrible bright pain in her head caused the light to become darkness.

Maria jumped to her feet and ran to the doors, her heart pounding uncontrollably. The sound of Danielle's scream sent a sudden chill through her blood. Maria looked around but all she saw were marks in the dirt indicating a scuffle and grooves in the sand that could only be heel marks. To her horror she realized that a limp body had been dragged behind the trees. Running past the grove as fast as she could, Maria caught a glimpse of three horses with riders, one carrying the hunched over figure of what appeared to be the princess. They rounded the bend and disappeared out of view.

“Ortega! You bastard! If you hurt her, I'll kill you!” Maria spat out as she ran back to the stables.

Luc and Rosa were talking inside the villa when they heard the scream. They ran out just as Maria made her way back through the trees.

“Maria, where's Danielle?” Luc asked urgently, following the tall woman past the wooden doors.

“Ortega took her,” Maria said as she placed some supplies in a bag and threw a saddle over her horse, fitting the bit and reins.

Rosa gasped and clutched her heart.

'I'm coming with you!” Luc began preparing his mare. “Let me get the rest of the men.”

“NO!” Maria stopped what she was doing. Taking a deep breath, she looked directly at the captain. “I know Ortega. If he sees your men, he'll kill her instantly and run.”

“Then I alone will accompany you,” Luc insisted. He walked to her side, placing his hand on Maria's shoulder and returned her gaze. “I trust your judgement, Maria, and I will follow your lead, but I must go with you. It's my sworn duty to protect the princess with my life and I will honor that oath. She is in many ways like my own daughter. I've been with her since she was an infant.”

Maria didn't have time to argue. Luc obviously loved Danielle and she couldn't think of a better ally than the man standing before her. “Very well, Luc, but we must do this my way. It's her only chance and I couldn't live with myself if something happened to her. We can't waste another minute.” Scrambling into their saddles, the two secured their weapons.

“Please be careful, Maria,” Rosa said, looking up at her daughter and then turning to the captain. “He's a dangerous man.”

“Take care of Cora for me,” Maria replied.

Rosa stood in the doorway of the stable and watched as the two rode swiftly away. When she returned to the villa, she saw Catherine standing in the garden, a worried expression on her pale face. Walking up to her, Rosa placed her hands on the queen's shaking arms. “Come inside, Catherine,” she said with concern. “Much has happened this morning. We must sit down and talk.”

Catherine allowed herself to be led inside as her heart ached with the knowledge that her daughter had been kidnapped. Rosa sat Catherine at the table and asked for some hot tea to be prepared. She knew she needed to gather every bit of strength she had. It would be up to her to keep them from both falling apart with worry.

Danielle woke with an intense searing pain in her head. She tried to bring her hands to her aching skull but her arms wouldn't function. She panicked for a moment, then calmed when she realized that the pain in her wrists came from the ropes that secured her hands. She struggled a little more, which confirmed that her legs were also tied securely together. She opened her eyes but everything was dark. As her other senses slowly returned she understood that not only was she strapped down, but also blindfolded and gagged. A fear she had never felt before gripped her soul.

Lying helplessly in a strange place, Danielle fought to recall her last clear memory. 'I was going to Maria, to check on her and Cora, and then a hand, an arm pulling me, and then nothing.' Lying still, she focused on trying to hear anything that would give her a clue to her surroundings. In the distance she could hear a man's voice shouting instructions. From the way it was muffled, it came from outside of the room she was in. Horses' hooves clattered as riders came in and out of the area. Danielle sensed the worst. This must be the same group that had attacked her carriage as they made their way to the villa of Cordoba.

Her lips trembled as she fought back the urge to cry. 'I must remain calm,' she thought, holding back her fear. 'Maria will find me. I'll be strong until she gets here. I owe her that.' She heard a door open and footsteps approaching. Lying completely still, Danielle decided to play dead, hoping that if they thought she was still unconscious they would not view her as a threat.

A hand slapped her cheek and it took all her resolve not to flinch or moan at the pain it caused. She let her head drop to the side and froze.

“Still out, are you, Princess?” Ortega chuckled. “I guess the hilt of my sword hit its mark with a little more force than you figured it would. Serves you right for trying to break free. Look where it got you.”

Danielle felt his breath come closer as he spoke. She fought not to react.

“Such a pretty little princess,” Ortega whispered, close to her ear. “I bet your lips taste as good as they look.”

Danielle felt a callused hand against her cheek. The fingers began to remove the gag from her face. She could feel tears beginning to well in her eyes. 'God, please not this,' she prayed silently.

“Ortega!” a man's voice called out. “Should we post men in the treetops to keep watch?”

The hand stopped. “Hang on, I'll be right there!” Ortega replied, annoyed by the interruption. “Until later, my little Princess. Besides, it'll be much more fun to watch you struggle as I take you.”

Danielle felt the gag tighten with a quick pull that snapped her head back around. She remained still until she heard the door close. Her heart was pounding so hard she was sure it could be seen through her clothing. She fought the bile rising in her throat, then took a deep breath to calm herself. She was sure that the next time Ortega returned she wouldn't be so lucky.

Maria rode to the edge of a pasture with Luc close behind. Ahead of them lay a dense forest with a large lake just to the east; to the west, a rocky mountain range climbed high into the sky. A single path wide enough for only one rider led into the thick trees. Maria dismounted her horse and jumped to the ground at the edge of the forest. Luc followed suit.

“We'll have to leave our horses here and continue on foot.” Maria spoke quietly. “The path you see before us is the only one into this forest. I've watched Ortega bring supplies through here for some time. I figure this is his new hiding spot. I've climbed the mountain over there and have gotten high enough to see a clearing in the middle of these trees that ends at the foot of a high cliff. From what I can tell, there are two structures, but there may be more. I'm sure he'll have men posted throughout the grove looking for intruders. The hills and cliffs next to the mountains offer good cover and our best way to sneak in. By the time we get to his fortress it should be dusk.”

“What's the plan once we get there?” Luc asked as they guided their horses on foot to the edge of the mountain range and tied them to two trees.

“We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Maria said as she removed a bag and a lengthy piece of rope from her saddle then began to climb the loose rocks at the base of the mountain. “We'll have to find exactly where he has Danielle hidden. My hope is to distract his men with some diversion long enough to get to the princess and get her out of there.”

“I'm right behind you, Maria,” Luc said.

Danielle tried to loosen the ropes that held her, but only succeeded in rubbing her skin raw and bloody. Time passed very slowly in her agonized state. No light seeped in past her blindfold, making it hard for her to distinguish day from night. She heard little of the earlier ruckus and it seemed the encampment had finally settled down. She could only guess how much time had passed, but it felt like hours. The only redeeming thing was that Ortega had not returned to continue where he'd left off.

Danielle took deep even breaths and thought of Maria. 'Whatever happens to me, at least I know that for the briefest of moments when you held me in your arms, safe from the rest of the world, I was completely happy. That was the sweetest sensation I have ever known and it is that feeling alone that lifts me now. I had, if only for a moment, everything I have ever wanted.' She continued to think of Maria and the kiss they'd shared to keep her calm, praying that soon her captivity would end.

Maria and Luc crawled along the rocks, keeping an eye out for any signs of Ortega's men. Coming to the edge of a cliff, Maria turned and brought her index finger to her mouth, signaling for Luc to remain quiet and stay still. Hugging the rock, Maria pulled herself very slowly to the edge and peered over. Maria looked out and spied the structures that she had only once viewed from a distance. Two buildings stood a good distance apart from one another. A corral holding at least twenty horses was adjacent to the larger building, which Maria assumed held most of Ortega's men and artillery. The smaller structure looked liked a small house, probably Ortega's private quarters.

The door to the larger building opened and Maria watched as Ortega walked across the grounds. He called to two men whom Maria spotted high in the treetops, asking if they'd seen any activity. They both responded that all was quiet. Ortega continued on and entered the smaller building. Maria backed up slowly.

“Ortega's in the house below. I saw him enter. That's probably where he has Danielle hidden. There are two men acting as spotters in the trees. The light is dim enough now that they won't be able to see us climb down this slope,” Maria said as she tied the end of the rope to a large stump that jutted out of the hard rock. “Once we get down there, we'll make our way to the house and see if we can spot Danielle inside. Once we know where she is, we'll create the diversion.”

“And that would be?” Luc asked hesitantly.

Maria reached into the bag she was carrying and removed some old rags and two containers of kerosene. “We're going to torch the other building,” she said, then placed the objects back in her bag.

“Excellent notion,” Luc said.

Maria climbed down the rope first, followed by Luc, who drew his pistol with his right hand and unsheathed his sword with his left.

“I'll cover you,” he said confidently.

Maria darted in and out of the trees as Luc kept watch right behind her. As they came closer to the smaller building, Luc pointed to a man standing on the side of the structure. Maria leaned down and removed a knife from her boot. Taking aim, she set sail the blade and with deadly accuracy it pierced the back of the man's neck, dropping him instantly with a small thud.

Maria quietly removed her weapon from the fallen man. Peering in a small window, she could make out a small figure tied to a bed. Her heart pounded as she felt her blood heat up in anger. She returned as quietly as possible to Luc's position.

“She's in there, Luc,” Maria spoke softly.

“Is she unharmed?” Luc asked, as he sheathed his sword.

“I can't tell,” Maria said worriedly.

“Make your way to the corral. Open the gates so the horses will run out when the fire starts. Tie two horses to the post over there, we'll use those to escape,” Maria said as she handed Luc the bag. “Soak the rags, light them, and throw them on the roof. Pour some of the kerosene on the door and light that also. Your job is to keep anyone from coming back to the house. I'll take care of anyone inside it. I'll meet you back at the horses with the princess.”

“Her safety comes first,” Luc said seriously.

“There is nothing more important in this world to me,” Maria said, taking a deep breath.

Maria watched Luc duck in and out of the trees for as long as the light would allow her to see. She heard small sounds coming from the corral. Finally, she saw the fireballs coming to rest on the roof. Within no time the blaze grew as the wind whipped down from the mountain, feeding the flames. She heard activity from the large building.

“Fire!” One of the men inside shouted the warning.

The call alarmed the entire camp. The door of the small quarters burst open, and a man ran toward the fire. Maria drew her sword and entered through the open door. Ortega's startled face was looking right at her.

“Surprised to see me?” Maria asked sarcastically.

Ortega drew his pistol and fired, but Maria rolled to the floor and came up untouched.

“Your aim is as good as your hiding place,” Maria said irritably. “I'm sick of your games.”

“You're too late, Maria,” Ortega said as he pulled his sword. “I've won. She's dead and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Maria flinched at his words. Was he trying to bait her, playing on her emotions to weaken her strength? Could this be the truth? Maria looked deep into her soul and searched for the light that was only Danielle. If his words were true, she knew that she would not feel her presence in her heart. Swallowing hard, Maria let her soul speak the truth. There was no darkness, only warmth and strength. Danielle was alive. Maria felt her.

“In that case,” Maria said, advancing in his direction, “It's only fair that I take your life in return.”

With her skill and strength, Maria lunged forward and steel hit steel. She backed him into the corner as a red-hot rage born of many years welled up in her gut. Ortega struggled to get the upper hand, but today was his unlucky day. Maria's sword became an extension of herself. Air rushed into her lungs with the fierce beat of her heart.

“I know it was you who planned my father's execution,” Maria said through gritted teeth as she sliced the tip of her sword through his cheek. “You told everyone it was the French that caused it, but I knew it was you. You bastard! You went around praising him as a true Spaniard and used him as a martyr for your cause, when it was you who murdered him.”

“He was as much a traitor as you are!” Ortega yelled. “He was a pathetic man!”

Maria's rage came to a head and in one quick move her blade sank deep into Ortega's chest. He stumbled back and fell into the wall. His eyes widened in fear as he took his last breath.

“He was my hero!” Maria said, as she removed her weapon and watched his eyes close and his body slide down the wall and land in a heap on the floor.

Gathering herself, Maria ran to the door that led to the back room. She forced the locked door open with her shoulder. Danielle jumped at the noise.

“Danielle, it's me,” Maria said reassuringly to the princess as she sat next to her and removed her blindfold and gag.

“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” Maria asked, concerned, holding Danielle's face and looking into the green eyes as they tried to adjust to the light.

“I'm all right, Maria,” Danielle said softly, blinking her eyes and focusing on the most beautiful sight in the world. “I prayed you'd find me. It was the thought of you that kept me calm.”

“We've got to get out of here,” Maria took her knife and cut the ropes that held Danielle's feet and hands. As soon as Danielle was free, she threw her arms around Maria's neck. Maria returned the embrace and felt Danielle's lips kiss her lightly on the cheek.

“Come on, Danielle. We can't waste another minute. Luc is waiting for us,” she whispered urgently in the princess's ear. She replaced her knife in her boot and picked up her sword.

Taking Danielle's hand, Maria led her back through the house and out the front door, careful not to be seen. The entire building was ablaze as men formed a water brigade and tried to extinguish the fire.

“See the horses tied over there?” Maria asked softly and pointed to the spot she wanted them to run to. “We need to make a run for it. Do not let go of my hand, and stay behind me. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Maria,” Danielle replied. “I'll be right behind you.”

Maria took one more survey of the area, and when she was completely sure no one was watching ran for the horses, clutching Danielle's hand. Luc was hidden behind a tree near the horses and he stepped out to make sure no one went after Maria and Danielle. The women were was almost to him and the waiting horses when he saw the armed man on top of the building behind them.

“Behind you!” Luc yelled and took aim with his pistol.

Hearing the shots, Maria stopped and turned back around, shielding Danielle with her body. She felt a sharp hot pain in her side and fell to her knees, watching as the figure on the roof tumbled to the ground. Clutching her side, she tried to stand.

“Maria!” Danielle yelled in fear.

“Get on the horse and get out of here,” Maria commanded.

Luc brought the horses to them as fast as he could. Danielle knelt down and pulled the knife from Maria's boot. She cut a slit in her dress and tore it off, leaving her legs exposed from the knees down, making it easier for her to ride.

“What are you doing, Danielle?” Maria asked through her pain.

“I'm getting you out of here,” she said and without hesitation, took part of the cloth and placed it inside of the other woman's shirt to stop the bleeding. “Hold this tightly, Maria.”

“Don't worry about me!” Maria said insistently, turning to Luc for help.

“No! I will not leave her!” Danielle yelled and looked hard at the captain.

She quickly mounted the horse and told Luc to place Maria in front of her. Luc swiftly helped Maria onto the horse as Ortega's men abandoned the burning building and began heading toward them.

“Quickly, Princess,” Luc ordered as he jumped on his mount. “Head toward that clearing and ride as fast as you can.”

Danielle held Maria as tightly as possible with her left arm and led her horse to the clearing. The full weight of the obviously unconscious woman rested on her chest. The path was thick with trees and Danielle felt the branches tear at her clothing and face as her horse sailed through the dense brush. She didn't break stride until she reached a pasture. Luc was right next to her.

“Maria?” There was no response. Danielle felt the warm blood on her hand where she held on tightly to her love.

“Luc,” Danielle said urgently. “We need to get Maria to the doctor. She's lost a lot of blood. Do you know the way from here?”

“Follow me,” Luc said as he looked over at the innocent girl who had become a courageous woman right before his eyes.

Danielle felt the tall woman's limp body respond for a moment.

“Danielle?” Maria said very softly.

“Yes, my love?” she called in her ear, holding her tight. “I'm right here, Maria!”

“I've never felt . . .” Maria coughed harshly through her own blood. “I've never felt anything more wonderful in my life, than when I kissed you, Danielle.”

Danielle's eyes filled with tears as she felt Maria's body fall against her chest as she lost consciousness again.

Danielle willed her horse to run as fast as it could and followed Luc out of the pasture and down the dirt road to the doctor's villa.

“I love you, Maria!” Danielle said as her tears fell harder. “You hang on, you hear me! I will not lose you!”

Rosa moved her chair next to the queen and spoke cautiously. “Catherine, I know this is hard on you. I'm so sorry this has happened. I understand what it feels like to worry about your child, but if anyone can protect her and bring her back safely, it's my Maria.”

“She's just an innocent young woman,” Catherine said as she sniffed back tears and looked over at Rosa. “She doesn't deserve to be caught up in the struggle between our two countries. She never even wanted to come to Spain, but the King insisted. She's my youngest daughter and I love her so much.”

“Have faith, Catherine,” Rosa said. “Luc and Maria won't let anything happen to her. They both care deeply for your daughter.”

She looked down at her hands and thought about her next words. The events of the morning weighed heavily on her mind. It didn't help matters that her only son had vanished, and now Maria was risking her life for a woman who Rosa was certain had caused the dispute between brother and sister.

“Catherine,” she said very slowly. “Has Danielle said anything to you about Fredrick? I mean, has she shown any interest in their courtship?”

Catherine sighed. She knew in her heart that Danielle, while keeping her promise to be polite and attentive to Fredrick, was not overly excited by this marriage. In fact, Catherine had noticed that her child seemed much more interested in Maria than anyone else. She'd never seen Danielle look at anyone the way she looked at her. It worried her terribly, but she didn't know what to say to Danielle. She'd tried to ignore it, but it was obvious from Danielle's display at dinner that her attraction was to Rosa's beautiful daughter and not to Fredrick.

“Why do you ask such a question at a time like this?” Catherine asked. She couldn't believe that Rosa thought it was an appropriate time to get into a conversation she really didn't want to have. All she could think about was Danielle's safe return.

“I'm sorry, Catherine,” Rosa said “I'm just as worried as you are at this moment, but we need to talk about something. This won't be easy, but I don't think it can wait any longer.”

Rosa stood up and walked to the window. Peering out, she took a deep breath. She was sure that Maria cared for Danielle. The look on Maria's face as she rode after Ortega was one of concern for someone she loved, not just worry over a French princess.

“Before you were up this morning, something happened between Maria and Fredrick. I've never seen my children argue, but this was a bitter fight,” Rosa said, turning her attention to Catherine and walking over to her. “I think Danielle is at the heart of it.”

Catherine looked up at Rosa. “What are you talking about? What happened?”

“I found the three of them in the garden early this morning. I only caught the last part of it, but it ended in Fredrick accidentally injuring Cora. He pulled his sword on Maria and Cora tried to protect her,” Rosa trembled slightly with the memory of the morning. “Fredrick got on his horse and left immediately. I tried to get answers, but no one would talk. Danielle was crying uncontrollably and the tension between her and Maria was not normal.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Rosa?” Catherine stood up from her chair so that she was eye to eye with Rosa.

“I think . . .” Rosa whispered. “I think that Danielle and Maria care for one another and I'm afraid that Fredrick saw something between them.”

Catherine's breath caught in her chest and she stumbled back, falling into her chair. Rosa came to her side.

“Catherine? Are you all right, Catherine?”

Catherine put her head in her hands as her tears fell hard. She couldn't explain the emotion she felt. Concern, fear, confusion, and worry all piled up on her, causing her to break down and weep.

“Catherine,” Rosa sat next to the queen and placed her hand on her knee. “We don't need to talk about this right now. Please forgive me. I've just been so concerned about this. It feels like my family is falling apart and I just needed someone to talk to about it. I thought we could work this out together.” She looked down and felt her eyes welling with tears. Soon, her sobs were as strong as Catherine's.

Slowly Catherine covered the Spanish woman's hand with her own. She knew in her heart that Rosa was probably correct in her assumption about Maria and her daughter. She wasn't sure what to say.

“This is such a mess,” Catherine sighed. “I never imagined any of this could happen.”

“God help us, none of this was planned,” Rosa said, choking back sobs

The women looked up at each other, worry and concern evident in their tear-soaked eyes.

'What are we going to do, Rosa?” Catherine asked quietly.

“We' re going to pray for the safe return of our children,” Rosa said. “And whatever comes of all of this, we're going to help each other through it.”

Catherine squeezed Rosa's hand, taking comfort in her words and strength.

The sun had left the sky and only the moon's soft light illuminated the grounds as Luc's horse came to an abrupt stop in front of the doctor's villa. Jumping down quickly, he ran to the door and pounded as hard as he could.

“We need some assistance here, please,” Luc shouted.

He ran back to Danielle. “Let me take her, Princess,” he said, gently cradling Maria in his arms.

“Be careful, Luc,” Danielle said. “She's so weak.” She dismounted and ran ahead of Luc.

The door to the villa opened and Dr. Sanar stepped out holding a lamp to light the dark entrance. “What's happened here?”

“Maria's been shot,” Danielle said, reaching in and pushing the door wider so that Luc could carry the wounded woman inside. “Ortega and his men kidnapped me and as Luc and Maria were rescuing me, she got injured.”

“Take her upstairs and put her in the room on the right,” Dr. Sanar instructed.

Luc climbed the steps carrying Maria as Danielle followed closely behind. Placing her gingerly on the bed, Luc stepped back. Danielle went to her side, kneeling on the floor.

“You're going to be okay, Maria,” she said, picking up the tall woman's hand and holding it against her own warm cheek. She placed her hand over Maria's and, sliding it down gently to her lips, kissed the other woman's palm lightly. She held Maria's hand a moment longer, afraid to relinquish the touch. “You hang on. You hear me? I'll be right here waiting for you.”

“I'll have to ask you to step out,” Dr. Sanar said, holding the lamp by Maria's side. “I need to see how bad this wound is.”

Danielle's eyes began to tear up. She kissed Maria's palm again and then gently laid her hand back on the bed.

“Come on, Princess,” Luc said softly. “Let's let the doctor take care of her.”

Luc brought his hand down and helped Danielle up from the floor. The young woman stood on wobbly feet and held on to the strong arm of the captain for support. He led her out of the room and down the stairs.

“Let me take you back to your mother,” Luc offered. “I'm sure she's worried out of her wits by now.”

“No, Luc,” Danielle said. “I can't leave Maria. I won't go anywhere until I know she's out of danger.”

“Princess,” Luc said, placing his hand on her cheek and wiping away dried blood from one of the many scratches caused by the tree branches, “Your wounds need to be tended to and you need to rest from this ordeal.”

“I'm fine, Luc,” Danielle said impatiently. “These are just little cuts, and I can't rest until I know she's all right!”

Danielle realized that she'd snapped at the captain. She took a deep breath. “Luc, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to take that tone with you. I'll never be able to tell you how grateful I am to you for risking your life to save me and for helping Maria, but I can't leave.”

Danielle looked at Luc; he was not just the captain of the guard, but her friend. She took his hand and led him to the sitting room, then sat in a chair next to the window.

“Sit down, Luc,” Danielle said softly. “I need to tell you something.”

Luc sat directly across from the young woman and looked at her with compassion.

“Luc,” Danielle began. “I don't know how to tell you this. I've tried to put it in words for myself many times but none of the explanations compare to what it is I feel inside. For years now I've dreamt of the same blue eyes. I prayed to find this person and it happened, Luc. It's not what I expected but I can't deny what my heart knows is the truth. I . . . I'm . . .”

“You're in love with Maria,” Luc said thoughtfully.

Danielle looked over at the man who had been her protector and mentor since her birth and smiled slightly at him.

“How did you know?”

“I see it in your eyes, in your words, and in your actions, Danielle,” Luc said quietly. “I watched you risk your life for her today and her for you. I knew this morning that Maria cared for you deeply, but what I didn't know was if you felt the same for her. I do now.”

“Does that upset you, Luc?” Danielle asked hesitantly.

“No, Cherie,” Luc said, taking her small hand in his and smiling gently. “Your life has always been controlled by your title. I prayed that you would find the happiness you deserved. Some people never know what it feels like to find their true love. That you have makes me very happy.”

Danielle brought his hand up to her lips and kissed the back of it as tears began to fall from her eyes. “Thank you, Luc. Your friendship has been the greatest of my life. Your understanding and support mean the world to me.”

“You will always have that from me, Princess, but most people will not be as accepting of this. Does anyone else know of your feelings?” Luc asked gently, standing up from his chair.

“Oh, Luc,” her voice shook slightly. “This morning, in the garden, very early, I went down to talk to Maria. I told her about my feelings and she begged me to drop it. She was worried about her brother, my position in France, and doing the right thing. She told me we had to walk away from it, but I pushed her and pushed her until she broke down and she kissed me.”

Danielle took a deep breath and continued. “Fredrick witnessed the kiss and blamed Maria for seducing me. That's not at all what happened, but he wouldn't listen. He attacked her and that's how Cora got injured. It was horrible. None of this was Maria's fault. I should have walked away like she begged me to do.”

Danielle looked up at her friend. The worry in his eyes showed through his usual stoic demeanor.

“Where is Fredrick now?” Luc asked, concerned.

“I'm not sure, Luc,” Danielle said softly, looking down at her lap and letting fall tears born of worry and frustration. “He got on his horse right after the incident and left. I saw his face when he was leaving. I think it scared him that he'd lost control. He didn't mean to hurt Cora. It was an accident.”

Luc came back to Danielle and knelt in front of her. “Don't worry about any of this right now, Princess. We'll figure something out.”

“I hope so, Luc. This is such a mess and now Maria . . .” her voice broke off as her tears turned to soft sobs.

“You stay with her,” Luc said, standing up. “I need to go back and let the queen know you're okay. Rosa needs to know about Maria, and I'll do my best to find Fredrick and talk with him.”

“Thank you, Luc,” Danielle said and stood to embrace him.

“I'll return as soon as possible,” Luc placed a kiss on the top of her head.

Danielle watched from the door as he mounted his horse and rode away. Turning around, she closed the door and walked back up the steps; sitting on the top rung, she prayed as she waited for the door to open.

Fredrick led his horse up a dirt road. He'd spent the entire day riding through the countryside and thinking about his actions of the morning. He was embarrassed by his sister and ashamed of his own behavior. He'd never meant to let his anger get the best of him and no matter what Maria had done, it could not excuse the outburst that led to Cora being hurt. He couldn't believe he'd tried to hurt his sister. The guilt was eating away at him.

Deciding to go back to the doctor's villa and check on Cora, he pulled the reins hard to the right and headed south. As he rode, he remembered the green eyes of the princess as they looked at him in contempt. She would never trust him again. Any hope that she would still want his hand in marriage was lost. His thoughts drifted to his mother, who would be devastated by the turn of events. He took a deep breath and dropped his head.

Danielle looked up when the door opened. The doctor walked out, wiping his hands on a cloth stained by Maria's blood.

“How is she?” Danielle asked anxiously, standing up to talk to him.

“She lost a lot of blood. I removed the musket ball, but it punctured her left lung. It'll be hard for her to fight off infection in the weakened state she's in,” Doctor Sanar said in a low voice. “Only time will tell. Has someone told Rosa?”

“Luc's gone back to tell her,” Danielle said, walking over to the room and peering in at Maria. “May I sit with her, please?”

“I think I should look at your cuts first, and get you cleaned up,” Doctor Sanar said. “She won't be conscious anytime soon.”

“Later, I promise, I . . . I need to be with her now,” Danielle insisted.

The doctor nodded his head in reply. Danielle walked quickly to the bed, leaving the door open. Maria's face was pale and beads of perspiration rose on her forehead. A clean sheet covered her chest.

Danielle looked down at her own hands. Walking over to a water basin, she washed the dirt and blood from them and then got a clean rag, soaking it in another basin filled with cool clean water. Wringing the rag out, she brought a chair to the edge of the bed and sat down. Gently, she wiped Maria's cheeks and laid the cloth over her forehead. She sat quietly, looking at the beautiful face and praying for her recovery.

Fredrick dismounted his horse and knocked on the doctor's door.

The door opened and Doctor Sanar stepped out. “She's upstairs in the room on the right.”


“No, Maria,” the doctor said, puzzled that Fredrick would inquire after the dog first. “The princess is with her.”

Fredrick blinked his eyes. “What? Why is Maria here?”

“I take it you've not been back to the villa today?” Doctor Sanar said slowly.

Fredrick shook his head.

“After I treated Cora, it seems that Ortega and his bandits kidnapped the princess. The French captain and your sister went after them and in the process of rescuing the princess, Maria was shot.”

“And the princess? Is she all right?” Fredrick asked urgently.

“Minor scrapes and bruises from what I can tell, but she won't leave Maria's side,” the doctor replied.

Confused and alarmed, Fredrick walked past the doctor through the entrance and up the stairs. When he got to the door, he stopped before turning to enter the room, listening as he heard Danielle's voice.

“I'm so sorry, Maria,” Danielle said, picking up Maria's hand and holding it tenderly between hers. “I've done nothing but ruin your life since I arrived. I never intended for any of this to happen. I know you'll never be able to forgive me, but I'll live the rest of my life trying to set things right with you and your family.”

Danielle brought the tall woman's hand to her lips and placed small kisses on it. “You begged me to leave you alone and I just couldn't do it. I tried to fight the feelings I had for you, I really did, but I wasn't as strong as you are. Can you blame me for wanting to make my dream a reality? I finally found what my heart was searching for and I wanted to force you to see that we were destined to be together. I didn't care at what cost and now look what's happened.”

Danielle looked at Maria with tears of regret. “Oh God, Maria, please forgive me. If I had let you leave when you wanted to, Fredrick would have never blamed you for our kiss. This is all my fault!” Danielle laid her head on the side of the bed next to Maria. “My heart will always belong to you, my love, and I'll do whatever you think is best from now on. If you want me to marry Fredrick, I will, I promise you, just please come back to me. You have to fight, Maria. I couldn't go on without you. I love you, Maria.”

Fredrick felt his legs weaken as he leaned against the wall for support. All along he'd blamed his sister for seducing the princess, when it was Danielle who'd taken the initiative. He closed his eyes tight and shook his head. Maria had always thought of his feelings first and the family. Why hadn't he trusted her to do the same when it came to the princess?

He bit his lip, holding back the anger he felt at himself for thinking that his sister would ever intentionally do anything to hurt him or shame their family. He'd let his jealousy and pride come before the love of his sister and it made him sick as he remembered the horrible things he'd yelled at her. Not only had he caused Maria pain with his words, he'd left her alone to fight against Ortega. He felt like her blood was on his hands.

'I should have been there for you, Maria, just like you have always been for me.' He thought as he quietly walked away and headed down the stairs. 'I don't know if I can ever forgive myself.'

“Doctor?” Fredrick asked softly as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Will she be all right?”

“I won't lie to you,” Doctor Sanar said. “It's serious. The bullet punctured her lung and she's lost a lot of blood. Only time will tell.”

Fredrick walked out the door to his horse. He knew he needed to be with his mother. She deserved the truth and she needed to know about Maria. He promised himself that his petty pride would never get in the way of the truth again. Somehow, some way, he needed to make this right.

Keeping her promise to Maria, Rosa left Catherine briefly to go check on Cora. As she sat inside the stables petting the healing dog, she heard a lone horse come to a stop outside. Holding her breath, she watched as the captain walked in and guided his horse to the water trough. Her heart fell as she braced herself against the stall.

“Maria?” Rosa asked breathless.

Luc looked up and saw Rosa. Walking quickly to her, he pulled a stool over for the woman, who was obviously having trouble standing.

“There is no easy way to tell you this . . . Maria's been shot,” Luc held onto Rosa's hand as he helped her sit. “She's with the doctor. He's doing everything he can for her.”

“What happened?” Rosa inquired through her tears and then quickly thought of the princess. “And Danielle?”

“She's fine, but she insisted on staying with your daughter,” Luc said, holding Rosa's hand and kneeling down to talk to her. “Maria found Ortega's hiding place and we were able to free Danielle, but as we were escaping, one of Ortega's armed men surprised us. I yelled to Maria and she shielded Danielle from the attack. The bullet would have hit the princess, but Maria saved her life.”

“I must go to her,” Rosa struggled with the words. “I . . . I need to be with my daughter.”

“Of course,” Luc said. “I will take you there myself. First I must tell Catherine that Danielle has been found and is unharmed. Will you be all right for a moment?”

Rosa shook her head as her tears fell harder. “Catherine is sitting just inside the villa.”

“I'll be right back and we'll get to Maria as quickly as possible.” Luc ran out of the stables.

“My Maria,” Rosa cried hard into her hands as she prayed. “You've always been the brave one in the family. I don't know what I would do without you, my beautiful daughter. Your strength has been the one thing that has held our family together. I would have fallen apart when your father was murdered, but you were there to encourage me to keep living. Hear me now, my child. I love you more than life itself. You fight for me, Maria. Dear God, please be with her now.”

Fredrick heard his mother's prayer as he walked quietly into the stables. “Mother?”

Rosa looked up. “Oh, Fredrick,” she stood and walked quickly to her son, throwing her arms around his neck. “Where have you been? I've been so worried. My God, Fredrick, so much has happened.”

“Mother,” Fredrick hugged her tight. “I know what's happened today and to Maria. I've just come from Dr. Sanar's villa. She's in good hands. Danielle is with her, but it is serious.”

Pulling back from the embrace, he brought his hands up to his mother's cheeks. “I can't explain what happened this morning, except to say, I acted like a complete idiot. I've been roaming the countryside all day trying to understand how I could have lost control. I'm sorry I hurt you.”

Stepping back he looked over and saw Cora lying on a blanket. “How's Maria's little pet?”

“She'll be fine, Fredrick,” Rosa sniffed back her tears.

“I'm so glad. She loves that dog. I didn't mean to harm her.” Fredrick said softly.

“Please tell me what made you and your sister fight. I really need to understand this.” Rosa said.

“It's complicated, Mother,” Fredrick brought his hands to his sides. “Sometimes things are better left unspoken.”

Rosa looked down lost in her own thoughts. She knew what Fredrick was referring to. She'd watched her daughter's interactions with other women for some years now. It was obvious to her that Maria preferred the company of women. At first it was hard for her to come to terms with. Maria had never had a serious involvement with anyone and the subject was never addressed in the family, until now.

“Fredrick,” Rosa said, looking up. “I already have an idea, but I'd rather hear it from you. I want no more secrets in this family. We need to come together now.”

Fredrick lowered his head. “I accused Maria of seducing the princess. I walked into the garden this morning and saw them in an embrace. I felt ashamed that Maria would embarrass our family in that way and I guess I also felt a little jealous.” Fredrick looked up slowly. “I assumed that Maria had forced Danielle into the kiss. I didn't even consider that the princess could have initiated it.”

“And now you think differently?” Rosa reached over and placed her hand over her son's.

“ I overheard Danielle confess it as she was praying for Maria,” Fredrick squeezed his mother's hand. “I don't think Maria wanted to pursue the feelings. In fact, she was planning on leaving just to avoid them. Danielle was pushing Maria to acknowledge their bond.”

“Oh, Fredrick,” Rosa sighed. “I've noticed emotions that seemed strained coming from both of them. I wondered if what I was seeing had anything to do with an attraction between them.”

“Mother,” Fredrick said slowly. “Danielle is in love with Maria. If you could have heard the words she spoke. . .they left no doubt about her feelings.”

Lost in a reflective silence, Fredrick dropped his head, and then after a moment walked over to look at Cora. “I don't think Maria will ever forgive me. I've hurt her so badly. The things I said, and the worst of it is--I really had intended in my rage to hurt her. It's unthinkable and unforgivable.”

“Maria loves you, Fredrick,” Rosa said. “If you explain it to her as you have to me, she will forgive you. She would never do anything to intentionally hurt you.”

“I'll never forget that again,” Fredrick said.

Fredrick walked back to his mother. “I like Danielle, Mother. I felt an attraction to her and I hoped that our marriage would not be just one of convenience. I started to hope for much more. I told Maria that I liked the princess. I can only imagine the pain she felt--I really do think Maria would have walked away from her only chance at a real love just for the sake of my happiness.”

“I have no doubt that she would have tried,” Rosa said. “She loves you that much.”

Fredrick reached for his mother's hand and held it tightly. “We both know Maria, Mother. That she struggled with her feelings and finally gave in to a kiss tells me that the love between them is stronger than Maria's willpower. I won't let her walk away from that. She's been given a gift of love from an amazing young woman. If I can do anything to support that, I will.”

Rosa stood on her tiptoes and placed a kiss on her son's cheek. “I'm very proud of you, Fredrick. It takes a special quality in a man to admit his mistakes and strength of character to show the depth of understanding you have for your sister. You know, of course, that Danielle's life is governed by her title.” Rosa squeezed Frederick's hand. “We do not have the only say in this woman's future.”

“I know, but I have a plan that just might work out for everyone,” Fredrick said. “But first we must go to Maria. She needs you.”

“She needs both of us,” Rosa said.

Luc and Catherine walked into the stables, stopping immediately when they saw Fredrick.

“Luc,” Fredrick said, walking to the captain and holding his hand out. “I'll never be able to repay you for helping my sister against Ortega. I am only sorry I was not there to help you. Thank you for getting Maria to the doctor and for being here for my mother.”

“No thank you is necessary,” the captain said, shaking Frederick's hand. “I wish I could have prevented your sister from being harmed. I pray for her full recovery.”

“She saved my daughter's life,” Catherine said softly. “She's a very brave woman. You must be very proud of your sister.”

“I've never been more proud in my life,” Fredrick said.

Catherine looked over at Rosa. Rosa gave her a small smile as a tear fell from her eye. Catherine returned the smile. It appeared that mother and son had resolved the events of the morning.

“Shall we go?” Luc asked

“Yes, immediately,” Fredrick replied.

Luc and Fredrick readied the coach and helped Rosa and Catherine inside, then Luc mounted his horse and Fredrick climbed onto the steps of the coach. Just before he sat down, he thought of something, jumped off of the steps, and ran back inside the stables. Luc watched, curious at Frederick's last-minute action. In a moment, Fredrick reappeared, carrying a bundle wrapped in a blanket. He opened the door to the carriage.

“Maria would want to know that Cora's with her,” Fredrick said, placing the dog between his mother and the queen. “I think she would take comfort in knowing that her pet was nearby.”

“Yes, of course,” Rosa said. “I'm surprised I didn't think of it. Thank you, Fredrick.”

The door closed quietly. Catherine looked over at Rosa as she placed her hand on Cora's head and petted the animal. “He's a thoughtful young man, Rosa. Whatever happened before, it appears he's worked through it. You did a wonderful job raising him. You must be proud of both of your children.”

“I am, Catherine,” Rosa said as she watched the dog's tail wag in response to the petting. “You have no idea how much.”

“Rosa,” Catherine asked very slowly. “Did Fredrick tell you what happened?”

“Yes, my friend,” Rosa said, placing her hand over the queen's. “It is as we suspected. Our daughters are struggling with the feelings they have for each other. Fredrick has come to terms with it, but I'm not sure what we'll do about this situation.”

“I guess we'll deal with it as we need to,” Catherine said, looking over at her friend. “The most important thing right now is Maria. I'm praying for her.”

“Thank you,” Rosa said, squeezing the hand of the woman she'd had grown to care about.

Danielle removed the cloth from Maria's forehead and dipped it back into the cool water. With the back of her hand, she felt the sides of Maria's face. Despite her attempts to cool her skin, it seemed that her temperature was increasing. Looking at the tall woman, she saw a rapid fluttering underneath closed eyelids. Maria's lips began to twitch and her shoulders and chest began to tremble. A soft moan escaped her mouth. Danielle wasn't sure if it was the fever or the pain that was causing this reaction.

“Maria,” Danielle said, kissing the woman's cheek, “It's okay, Maria. I'm with you. You're going to be fine. Do you hear me, Maria? I'm right here, my love. I won't leave your side. I'll be with you always, Maria.”

Maria's movements stilled as Danielle continued to speak softly to her. Danielle laid her head next to the dark woman, humming a song into her ear. Each time she began to moan or tremble, the princess talked her through the spell and whispered songs until Maria calmed. Danielle kept track of the occurrences and it worried her that they were coming closer and closer together.

Dr. Sanar came up to check on his patient and found the princess humming a song. “Is she responsive?”

“No,” Danielle said worriedly. “She's having tremors of some sort. They began a while ago and her fever seems worse.”

“Let me take a look.” The doctor moved next to the injured woman and felt her face, then removed the sheet and listened to her lungs. “She's not doing as well as I'd hoped. I think she might be fighting an infection. Just in case, we'll have to bleed her to let the infection drain.”

“But she's so weak already,” Danielle said. “Won't that make it harder for her to recover?”

“If it is an infection we shouldn't wait.” The doctor moved to the table and brought over a porcelain bowl, placing a towel underneath it, then reached for a knife. He placed Maria's arm over the bowl, resting her elbow in the center. “You might want to leave now.”

“No, I'm staying,” Danielle said softly.

“Very well,” Dr. Sanar said before he took the blade and made a cut along the soft fold of Maria's arm. Blood trickled out immediately and collected in the basin.

“Is there anything else we can do?” Danielle asked as tears formed in her eyes.

“I'm sorry, but I've done all that I know how to do,” the doctor stood and started to walk out of the room. “I'll be back in a couple of minutes.”

Danielle watched as Maria lay helpless, taken to a dark world by the infection. Her head moved back and forth and she mumbled words that made no sense. The perspiration on her brow beaded with intensity and as Danielle ran her hand alongside of Maria's arm, her fingers burned from the heat coming from her skin. Gently holding Maria's hand, she hummed another song and prayed for her to return from her hallucinations.

The doctor returned a few minutes later and removed the bowl. He tied a bandage around the cut and folded Maria's arm back to help stop the bleeding. “We'll see how she does now, but we may need to repeat this treatment. If you notice any change in her, call for me. I'll be right downstairs.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Danielle whispered.

As the doctor stepped off of the stairs, he heard a knock. Taking the lamp from the side table, he opened the door. Rosa quickly stepped in.

“How is she?” Rosa asked.

“I think an infection has settled in, but she's fighting it very hard. Let's keep our hopes up,” Dr. Sanar said. “She's upstairs on the right and Danielle is still with her.”

Rosa walked quickly to the staircase as the doctor escorted the rest of the party in. When she entered the room, she saw the princess staring at her daughter and holding her hand.

“How is she?”

“Rosa!” Danielle, startled from her thoughts, looked up at the older woman and then turned quickly back to Maria. “Maria, look, it's your mother. She's here for you, Maria.”

Danielle stood and motioned for Rosa to move next to the bed. “Please come and talk to her. She might respond to your voice. She's fighting an infection of some sort and her fever is getting worse. I know she'll do better now that you're here.”

Danielle stepped away and allowed Rosa to take her place. Her heart broke as she watched Rosa's tears fall while talked to her daughter. Nothing could ever compare to the love of a mother, and Danielle knew her own mother must have been devastated when she was kidnapped. Backing away quietly, Danielle left the room to give them time alone.

“Danielle!” Catherine's voice reflected her fear as she saw her daughter's torn dress and the dried blood about her arms and legs. “My God, Danielle, are you hurt?”

“No, Mother,” Danielle said, descending the steps and giving her mother a hug. “These are just scrapes and cuts. I'll be fine, really.”

“What happened to your dress?” Catherine said very softly.

“I tore it so I could ride the horse better,” she whispered to her mother, who was obviously afraid that something horrible had happened to her. “I needed to get Maria out of that place as quickly as possible and I wanted to make sure I could hang on tight. Don't worry, nothing happened. Luc and Maria got to me in time.”

Stepping back from the embrace, Danielle's gaze immediately fell on Fredrick, who was holding Cora in his arms. Fredrick noticed the alarm in the princess's eyes and it saddened him, but he completely understood why Danielle stood speechless with her questioning gaze.

Catherine noticed the tension and asked Luc to escort her to the sitting room. She wanted them to have time to talk.

“I'm so glad you're unharmed, Princess,” Fredrick said slowly, lowering his head. “I'm sorry I wasn't there to assist in your release. Maybe I could have done something to protect Maria. I know you don't believe this, but I love her very much.”

Sensing a shift in Frederick's personality from what she'd seen that morning, Danielle walked to his side and whispered. “I must talk to you, Fredrick. I must explain some things.”

“There's no need for you to say a word,” Fredrick replied softly. “I'm the one who should explain, but sadly, nothing I say will ever excuse my behavior. I hope that Maria will find it in her heart to forgive me, and I hope that one day you will look at me without disgust.”

“Fredrick,” Danielle said, placing her hand on his arm. “I do not think of you with disgust. I never did. I hurt you. None of what you saw in the garden was Maria's fault. I'm the one who pursued your sister and it was my actions that caused your fight. I'm sorry I hurt you, and if anyone should ask for forgiveness, it's me. I've dreamt of one person all my life and the moment I saw Maria, I knew it was her that made my heart beat. I'm sorry if that angers you, Fredrick, but I understand if it does. Your anger should be directed at me and me alone. Please know that Maria wanted nothing to do with my advances.”

“Well then, Princess,” Fredrick smiled gently and whispered, “If it is my sister that your heart is calling to, I'd say she's a very lucky woman, and I hope when she recovers that she comes to her senses and runs straight into your arms.”

Danielle tilted her head in surprise as her eyes widened below raised eyebrows. She couldn't help the smile that came to her lips. That was not at all what she expected to hear from Fredrick, and the playfulness with which he delivered it caused her to step back in delighted shock. “Did you just say what I think you did?”

“Yes,” Fredrick said softly. “But don't you dare tell Maria. I don't want her to think I gave you up that easily.”

Closing the small gap between them, Danielle stepped to Fredrick's side, avoiding the dog he still held in his arms, and placed a kiss on his cheek. “You are an amazing man, Fredrick. No wonder Maria loves you so much.”

“I hope she still does,” Fredrick said as the smile left his face. “I'll do everything I can to seek her forgiveness.”

“Trust me, Fredrick,” Danielle said. “You've already been forgiven in her eyes.”

Danielle reached in and petted Cora's head. “How are you doing, little one?”

Cora barked and her tail began to wag, causing the blanket to move back and forth.

“I guess that means she's doing just fine,” Fredrick laughed.

“Thank you for bringing her,” Danielle said, quickly sobering. “Maria will want her near when she wakes up. Come upstairs and see your sister, Fredrick. She'll sense your presence and love in the room. She needs all the support she can get.”

“I'm right behind you,” Fredrick said, and followed Danielle up the stairs.

Rosa's face showed the anguish of a worried mother as Danielle stepped into the room. Looking at Maria, the princess saw the shivers and heard the delirious ramblings that confirmed that the tall woman was still reacting to the fever. Kneeling down by the bed, she took Maria's hand and leaning in close to her ear, spoke in soft tones.

"I'm right here, Maria, right by your side, just like I promised," she whispered, and began humming softly as she brushed back an errant strand of hair from the wounded woman's cheek. Rosa and Fredrick watched as the voice of the princess soothed the patient, who immediately calmed, her body no longer wracked by chills.

Fredrick placed Cora at the foot of the bed. The dog immediately crawled closer to her master so that her head rested on Maria's lower leg. Cora took a deep breath of the familiar scent and then sighed as she let her body settle into the softness.

Danielle reached down, petting the dog, and then looked over at Rosa.
"She's going to be just fine, Rosa. I can feel it. She's fighting this," Danielle said with confidence.

"I'm sure you're right," Rosa smiled, turning to her son. "Fredrick, why don't you say something to Maria. I think she can hear us even in the state she's in. It might help her to know that you're here to support her."

Fredrick nodded his head and Danielle stepped away to allow him the position next to his sister. Hesitantly, he moved in and sat on the edge of the bed. Almost in unison, Rosa and Danielle backed out of the room to allow him to talk without an audience.

"We'll be downstairs," Rosa said, taking Danielle's hand and smiling at her. "I'm going to see to it that this young woman gets these cuts tended to before we have two people to worry about."

Fredrick nodded his head again but did not turn around. He heard the footsteps of the women on the stairs as he tried to find the words to say. Even though his sister was unconscious, he wanted to make sure that if by chance she could hear his voice she would not be alarmed.

"I love you, my sister," he said softly. "You have always been a source of pride and inspiration to me and I continue to feel that to this very moment, although I seriously doubt you will ever think of me in that way again. I will never be able to tell you how sorry I am for the disgraceful things I accused you of and for losing my self-control. I am so sorry, Maria. If you can hear me now, please know that I am here for you just like you have always been for me. Nothing will ever come between us again, I promise that to you. I hope you will be able to forgive me. I will do everything I can to make it up to you."

Fredrick bent forward and kissed his sister's forehead. "You need to fight, Maria. You have your family who would be lost without you. You have a wonderful woman waiting here for you. God knows you deserve her."

Fredrick walked to a chair in the corner of the room and sat down. He bowed his head and prayed for the woman who was not just his sister, but also his best friend. Lost in his prayers, Fredrick drifted, fighting the urge for sleep as the long day and night finally caught up to him.

Downstairs, the doctor cleaned Danielle's wounds and showed her to a private bedroom where she could tidy herself. Danielle closed the door behind her and turned up the wick on the lamp. Looking up, she found herself staring into a full-length mirror. She jumped slightly, startled at her own appearance.

'Good, God, no wonder my mother was worried,' Danielle thought as she undid her long braid and sat down in a chair next to the bed table. A knock at the door caused her to stop her task.

"Yes," Danielle called out.

"It's me, Danielle," Catherine said from the other side of the door. "May I come in, please?"

"Of course, Mother," Danielle said.

The queen walked in, closing the door behind her, and stood next to her daughter. "Let me help you with that."

"I'd welcome your help," Danielle said softly, dropping her hands and letting her mother continue. She looked at her wrists, still sore from the ropes. Clenching her fists a couple of times, she tried to ease the throbbing.

"You must be in pain," Catherine said, noticing her daughter's actions.
"It's not that bad, really," Danielle said, trying to convince her mother that she was all right.

Catherine took a brush and began to untangle the matted hair. She brought it down on Danielle's scalp just at the place that Ortega's sword hilt had landed earlier, causing the princess to jerk.

"I suppose the bump on your head doesn't hurt at all either," Catherine said gently, continuing to brush the long strands.

"No, not . . . not a bit," Danielle squeaked out, bringing her hand up and rubbing the knot, laughing at her lie.

"I'm very proud of you, Danielle," Catherine said. "You could have been killed trying to save Maria."

"Mother," Danielle said seriously. "Aren't you forgetting that is was Maria who risked her life for me? All I did was help her get away."

"I think you did a little more than that, young lady," Catherine said, continuing her work on her daughter's hair. "Luc told me that those men were coming after you, but you stood your ground, taking action to get Maria out safely. Does . . . does her life mean that much to you?"

"Mother," Danielle said, reaching up and grabbing the brush in mid stroke. "Maria means more to me than you will ever realize. Sit down, Mother. We really need to talk."

"It's all right, Danielle," Catherine said. "I already know--I have ever since I saw you staring at her throughout dinner. I know you love her."

"What?" Danielle said, turning in her chair and looking directly at her mother.

"Oh, come on now, Danielle," Catherine said. "I am your mother, after all. I saw it then, although I didn't know what to say. It did make me wonder what we'd do about Fredrick and the marriage, and how I was going to explain it to your father, but  . . ."

"What is going on here?" Danielle said, raising her hands in defeat. "How is it that you knew about my feelings for Maria before I could even understand it for myself?"

"You can't hide love, dear," Catherine said slowly. "Love shines like a light. It radiates from your soul and casts a glow all around you. I see it right now. It is love, isn't it, Danielle?"

"Mother," Danielle said seriously. "I'm sorry if this upsets you, but yes, as much as I tried to deny it, Maria is and always has been the love for me. You'd better sit down now."

Danielle took her mother's hand and together they walked to the sofa and sat down.

"I know this is going to sound strange. God knows it was not what I expected either, but for years I've had the same dream and it was always the same blue eyes that came to me. I knew that if I was ever lucky enough to find them, I'd find my true love. What I hadn't planned on was Maria. It's almost like we were destined for each other. Maria has had the same dream of me. I didn't know what to do when I saw her. I thought it would be a man. I fought with myself, but it's no use, the way she makes me feel is . . . is well, I don't even think I can tell you that," Danielle said, blushing and looking away.

"When I look at her," Danielle continued, taking her mother's hand and placing it over her heart. "I feel her inside--in here. Now that I've found her, I can't imagine my life without her. In some mysterious way, it's like we've known each other for years."

"I've heard of this type of thing," Catherine said slowly. "Although I never believed it could truly happen, but maybe it is the case with the both of you. I read about it in a story. I do believe Plato wrote it. Anyway, the premise is that before we were humans, we were complete beings, totally fulfilled and in no need of a mate. At some point we were split in half, creating two souls. Now we roam the world looking for that other half. Maybe, just maybe, Maria is yours."

"That's so beautiful," Danielle said, a tear forming in the corner of her eye. "She feels just like that to me."

Catherine reached over and hugged Danielle. "I love you so much, Danielle. I don't know what we're going to do about all this. If I take you home and you refuse Fredrick, I don't know what your father will do. I fear he'll try to force you to marry him."

"I know, Mother," Danielle said, pulling back and looking at the woman she admired in so many ways. "Can we talk about all of this after Maria is okay? I can't think about anything but her right now."

"Of course," Catherine said. "We'll have plenty of time later."

"I need to get back to her," Danielle said hurriedly. "I've been away too long."

"Go to her," Catherine said, standing and kissing her daughter.

Walking into the room, Danielle looked over at Fredrick's bowed head. His breathing was deep and even and it was evident he'd fallen asleep. Moving quietly to Maria's side, Danielle sat down, yawning. She felt herself giving in to her own exhaustion as she leaned back in her chair, looking out the window at the dawning of a new day. Leaning forward, she rested her head on the bed facing Maria. Putting one hand on Cora's head and one over Maria's hand, she continued to watch the other woman breathe until her eyelids became too heavy to keep open.

As the sun broke the horizon, Dr. Sanar walked into the room to check on his patient. He smiled to himself as he saw the sleeping figures. Quietly, he felt Maria's cheeks and checked her lungs again. 'This is much better,' he thought. 'Now we just need you to wake up and tell us how you're feeling.' He walked silently out of the room, not wanting to disturb its sleeping occupants.

Maria felt a pain in her side. Slowly she opened her eyes and looked around, trying to focus on her surroundings. She felt something wet along her cheek and blinked. Through squinted lids, she saw Cora lying next to her head.

'That explains the wet cheek,' she thought, trying to make out the figure in the chair at the end of the bed. 'Fredrick? Wait a minute, I must be dreaming.' Maria closed her eyes again and then felt a warm hand covering her own. Looking to her right at the face resting on the bed, she focused on the most breathtaking sight in the world. 'My God, she's beautiful.' Maria closed her eyes once more. 'I'm either dreaming or I've actually passed on to the other side and this is my last look at the things I love.'

"Maria," Danielle said faintly.

Maria's eyelids snapped open, shaking her from her thoughts. She watched the young woman stir for a moment but she was obviously talking in her sleep.

"Maria? No . . . no, you stay with me. Maria . . .

Maria slipped her hand from underneath Danielle's and ran her fingers through the women's golden hair. She liked the way it hung loosely around her face; until now she'd only seen it pulled back in a braid. Maria marveled at how young it made Danielle look. There was so much not spoken between them.

In the whirlwind of the events of the last two days, they'd shared so much but said so little. Their bond was stronger than any she had ever known and seemed to be forged by some unseen force greater than the both of them.

'What are we going to do, Princess? How can we be together?' she thought as she listened to the younger woman cry out in her nightmare.  "Danielle," Maria said softly. "Danielle, wake up."

"Hmm," Danielle struggled to wake herself. "What . . . what's . . ."?

Danielle's green eyes opened and to her amazement and delight she saw a smile and blue eyes staring back at her. She felt long fingers stroking her hair.

"Am I dreaming?" she asked hesitantly.

"God, I hope not," Maria said, smiling. "I've been asking myself that same question."

"Oh, Maria," Danielle said, sitting up and pulling the tall woman's hand to her lips, kissing it tenderly. "I've been so worried. You've been unconscious for so long. How do you feel?"

"Well," Maria said slowly. "My hand feels wonderful, it's the rest of my body I'm concerned about."

Danielle pulled Maria's hand away from her mouth, smirking. Leaning forward, she kissed Maria's forehead and without hesitation brought her lips down to rest on the soft mouth that had been smiling at her earlier. She gently kissed her.

"How do you feel now?" Danielle whispered.

"Strangely warm, oddly enough," Maria whispered back.

Pulling back, Danielle smiled. "Be serious for a moment, will you. How do you feel?"

"I think I'll live," Maria said, grimacing at the pain in her side. "I can't remember all the details, but I do remember you telling Luc to put me on a horse. I'll rely on you for the rest."

Before the princess could respond, Maria asked another question as she glanced at the foot of the bed. "Danielle, where am I and what is Fredrick doing here?"

Danielle turned to follow Maria's gaze. Fredrick sat with his head thrown back, mouth open, sleeping soundly.

"I honestly forgot he was there," Danielle said very softly, turning back to Maria. "You're at Dr. Sanar's villa. Luc and I brought you here. We made it away from Ortega's men. The doctor operated to remove a musket. It punctured your lung, but you should recover from that. You remember getting shot, right?"

Maria nodded her head.

"You've been unconscious with a fever from an infection. As for Fredrick, all I can tell you is that he's had a change of heart. I'm not exactly sure what caused it. He's very sorry for hurting you and he told me that he hopes you'll forgive him for the awful things he said and did. He is very sincere, Maria. He told me he loves you very much." 

"What made him change his mind? Did you talk to him?" Maria asked, confused.

"He apologized to me before I said a word to him," Danielle said. "I tried to explain to him that what he saw in the garden was all my doing. I told him you didn't want anything to do with my advances. His reply was . . . well, I think I'll let him tell you that for himself. He'll be happy to see you."

Maria looked over at the tall figure in the chair. With his mouth hanging open he looked just like he did when he was a little boy, asleep in his mother's arms. Tears began to form in the corner of her eyes. She prayed that what Danielle was telling her was true. Her connection to her brother was the one thing she'd always treasured.

"I must be dreaming," Maria whispered.

Danielle took Maria's hand again. "It's not a dream, Maria. You and I have a lot to talk about, but not right now. I can't tell you what it means to me to have you back. I was so worried."

Maria looked into the gentle green eyes of the woman she loved. Holding her gaze she, felt the softness of Danielle's hand. Overwhelmed with emotion, she tried to speak, but nothing came out. All she wanted to do was tell Danielle that she loved her. Nothing had ever been clearer to her than what she felt right now, but the unanswered questions about what would happen next between them made her choke. Words were never easy for her. She thought of Danielle marrying Fredrick or leaving to go back to France and tears fell from her eyes.

"I . . .." Maria said swallowing hard. "I  . . .

Danielle sensed what only she could. "It's okay, Maria. Don't try and talk anymore. You need to rest. I'm going to get the doctor and let Rosa know you're awake."

Danielle stood to leave but before she did, she leaned down and kissed the tears away from Maria's face. Resting her cheek on Maria's, Danielle whispered into her ear. "Whatever happens from here, you must know that I love you more than anything. My heart will always belong to you, Maria. Nothing will ever change that."

Maria brought her hand to Danielle's cheek and brought the young woman's mouth to her own. Hearing the admission of love from the princess was all she needed. Maria kissed the tender lips in front of her. Danielle's lips opened a little, letting Maria feel the moistness within. A rush of desire flooded her as she moved her hand through soft curls and rested it on the back of Danielle's neck.

Pulling her closer, Maria let her tongue brush against the bottom lip of the woman in her grasp and finally slipped her tongue into the widening mouth. She tasted the sweetness within and her passion grew hotter as Danielle moaned and responded to the kiss.

Danielle's body moved closer, aching for more contact, and rested a little too hard on Maria's wounded side, causing the injured woman to flinch in pain. Quickly, Danielle pulled away, looking at the passion-filled eyes below her.

"Oh, God," Danielle said breathless. "Did I hurt you, Maria?"

"No," Maria responded. "I feel wonderful."

"You . . . you need to see the doctor right now," Danielle said, trying to regain her composure. "I'll be right back."

Danielle walked on shaky legs to the doorway and once outside of Maria's view, leaned into the wall for support as the emotion from the kiss left her weak with desire.

Struggling to bring her breathing under control, Danielle brought her hands to her bosom and pushed inward to stop her rapidly beating heart from pounding through her chest. 'She's going to be the death of me,' Danielle thought to herself, as she looked at the stairwell, unsure that her legs would carry her down. 'I can't believe how I feel when she kisses me like that. I'll probably faint if we ever get a chance to take this any further.' Danielle took a deep breath, feeling dizzy just thinking about it.

Slowly inching away from the wall, she descended the stairs, careful to hang onto the railing. When she reached the bottom she bowed her head, the weight of all the worry and love she felt bubbling to the surface and for some unknown reason releasing itself in the form of tears.

Looking up, Danielle saw four sets of eyes staring at her.

"What is it, Danielle?" Rosa asked, reaching out and grabbing Catherine's arm for support.

Suddenly, Danielle realized what her behavior must look like. "No, no . . . she's fine. She's awake. She's going to be okay, really."

Dr. Sanar walked past everyone and made his way up the stairs with Rosa right behind him.

"Are you okay?" Catherine asked, reaching up to brush away the tears from her daughter's cheeks.

"Yes," Danielle said. "I'm just . . . I'm just so happy she's awake. I was so worried, Mother. I just can't imagine what I'd do if anything ever happened to her. I think it just finally hit me."

"I understand exactly how you feel," Catherine said, hugging her daughter. "I felt the same way when I thought you might never come back to me."

Luc walked up, placing his hands on the shoulders of the women, squeezing. Danielle looked up from her hug and smiled at him. No words were needed between them. Danielle stood in the embrace, feeling the love and support surrounding her.  She had everything she needed--everything but the answers to where her life would head next. 

Maria scratched behind Cora's ear, smiling at the dog whose tail threatened to wag right off. "Did you miss me, girl?" she whispered. Cora moved closer and laid her paw across the tall woman's arm.

Hearing steps coming down the hall, she held her index finger to her lips and pointed with her other hand to the chair where Fredrick slept. Dr. Sanar nodded and then walked quietly around the bed, taking his patient's hand to check her pulse. Rosa looked over at her son and then smiled at Maria, sitting down next to her.

"He's so precious when he looks like that," Rosa whispered.

"He looks like a two-year-old," Maria whispered back, laughing. "I think it was his snoring that woke me up."

Rosa chuckled, rolling her eyes at her daughter.

"How are you, Maria?" Rosa asked seriously.

"Well, Doc?" Maria asked looking over at the doctor, who was inspecting her wound.

"Everything looks good here, and you're not burning up anymore," he said. "I'd say you're doing quite well. You'll need plenty of rest and no activity for a while."

"Oh, thank God," Rosa said, bending down and kissing her daughter's cheek.

"You gave me a real scare. Don't you ever do that again."

"Believe me, Mother," Maria said. "I'll do my best to make sure of that."

"I love you," Rosa said.

"I love you too," Maria said, reaching for her mother's hand.

Looking up, Maria saw the strained blue eyes of her brother watching her from the foot of the bed. He looked like he was the one who'd been shot. The pain radiating from his face caused Maria to swallow hard. She felt his unease and decided to break the tension.

"Well, good morning, little brother," Maria smiled. "It's about time you woke up, we've all been waiting for you. I was just about to send Cora over there for a special good morning treat."

"I bet you were," Fredrick smiled back, visibly relaxing his stance.

"What have I told you about those dog kisses? You never pay attention to anything I say, do you, Maria?"

"Only when I think it makes sense," Maria said.

"I don't blame you," Fredrick said, lowering his head. "I wouldn't pay attention to anything that comes out of my mouth."

Maria looked at her brother and knew that they were both talking about something much more. This was just like them--always talking in circles. They were so much alike, neither very good at expressing their true emotions. It had always been easier to joke than expose themselves emotionally.

Rosa sat silent, watching the exchange. She felt her heart breaking for her children. They'd always been close and nothing of this magnitude had ever happened between them. If they could repair this, she knew they'd be fine.

Fredrick raised his head, watching the doctor walk out of the room. Moving to the side of the bed, he took his sister's hand.

"I'm sorry . . .I'm so--" Fredrick stumbled verbally as he began.

"No," Maria said softly. "Don't. There's no need. Please, Fredrick, I understand everything."

Fredrick looked at his sister trying to hold back the tears that wanted to fall. He'd been forgiven that quickly and even though it would take him much longer to forgive himself, all he needed for now was Maria's acceptance.

"Are we okay?" Fredrick asked slowly.

"Yes," Maria said. "We're just as we've always been."

Fredrick bent down, kissing his sister's forehead. "I'll always be here for you from now on, Maria. Always."

"Thank you, my brother," Maria whispered. "And I for you."

Despite her best efforts, her resolve faltered and a single tear fell, rolling down the side of her cheek. Maria coughed hard so that it appeared her emotion was coming from pain of her injury instead of her heart.

Rosa watched Maria's attempt to cover her feelings and shook her head. Such strong-willed children she'd raised, and yet both were complete mushballs when it came to certain emotions. She felt thankful for their love.

"We should let you rest," Rosa said, standing, looking over at Fredrick.

"The doctor said she'd need plenty of rest and you know Maria, she's not likely to comply with his wishes."

"That's an understatement," Fredrick said, smiling.

"Excuse me," Maria said shortly. "Talking about me like I'm not here is a little uncalled for, don't you think?"

"Did she say something?" Fredrick joked, looking at his mother.

"Get out of here, the both of you," Maria smiled. "I need some sleep."

Her mother was right; she was tired and weak despite how long she'd been unconscious, weaker in fact than she'd ever remembered feeling. But she was recovering, albeit slower than she would have liked. Lying still was not something she was particularly good at and she hoped that her strength would return by the next day.

Maria closed her eyes and tried to relax, but found sleep elusive; she was too full of unanswered questions and uncomfortable thoughts. Even though she was physically exhausted, she felt unaccountably restless and uneasy. After rolling her head back and forth and fretting for some moments, she realized she was almost holding her breath, listening for Danielle's footsteps to return. A warm and disturbing hunger settled into her body. Stifling a moan, she opened her eyes.

'How can I miss her when she's just downstairs,' Maria thought, cursing herself. 'I feel like a piece of me is lost when she's not near. I've never needed anyone like I feel the need for her. What am I going to do if she leaves me?'

Maria felt the familiar ache in her chest that had nothing to do with her injury. It had started the day the princess first looked into her eyes and had grown in intensity every moment since then.

'I love you, Danielle,' Maria thought, clenching the fabric of the bed in both hands and closing her eyes in frustration. 'You've ruined my life and made it whole all in this short time. I can't imagine my existence without you.'

"Hey, beautiful," Danielle said softly, bringing her hand to Maria's cheek. "You should be sleeping. Are you in pain?"

Maria opened her eyes and let her breath out slowly. The tightness in her chest eased as she felt the warmth of Danielle's hand rest on her face.

"Not anymore," Maria responded. "Will you sit with me?"

"Of course," Danielle said, pulling the wooden chair closer to the bed.

"Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes. I just . . . I just want to feel you near me," Maria said. "Is that okay?"

"More than okay," Danielle said. "Next to you is where I always want to be."

"Danielle," Maria said very slowly.

"Yes," Danielle said, taking Maria's hand.

"I love you," Maria said, tears forming in her eyes, body shaking with emotion.

Danielle squeezed the large hand in her grasp and brought her lips down, gently kissing the trembling woman below her.

"That's all I'll ever need," Danielle said, sniffing back her own tears. "I feel like I've waited all my life to hear those words coming only from you."

"What are we going to do now, Princess?" Maria whispered, fighting back her exhaustion.

"We'll think of something," Danielle whispered.

Moving closer and bending to rest her head on the pillow next to Maria, Danielle placed her lips next to the tall woman's soft ear. "Rest for now, my love. You need to build your strength up. Close your eyes and just relax."

"Hmm?" Maria said, her eyes drooping, giving into her weakness, as she listened to the soothing voice of the princess.

"I said I love you, Maria." Danielle smiled to herself as she felt Maria's body give up its control and melt into the bed.

Danielle began humming softly and listened to the soft even breathing of the woman lying next to her, who within minutes was fast asleep.

Dr. Sanar brought tea into the sitting room and placed it next to a plate of food that his cook had prepared. "Please help yourself. It's not much, but you all must be hungry. I'll be out back checking on your men, Captain. Stay here as long as you want. Maria can't be moved for at least a day."

"Thank you," Rosa said, reaching to lift the teapot. "May I pour you a cup, Catherine?"

"Yes, please," Catherine said, standing to stretch her legs.

Fredrick walked back and forth across the rug, hands dug deep into the pockets of his pants. 

"Fredrick," Rosa said. "Why don't you sit down and have some tea with us?"

Fredrick looked back at his mother and then to the queen, wondering if anyone was going to start the conversation that he knew had to happen. Maria was going to be fine, the princess was still here, and now what about this whole arranged marriage thing? He sighed and sat down.

Rosa looked at her son's questioning gaze and took a deep breath.

The four occupants of the room sat in silence, drinking tea for what seemed a long time. Finally, Rosa worked up the nerve to speak.

"Catherine," Rosa said slowly. "Have you thought about what you and Danielle will do now?"

Fredrick snapped his head up. 'Finally,' he thought. 'Now we'll get some answers.'

"Well," Catherine said, hesitantly, standing, facing away from the group. "I'm not sure exactly. I think . . . I think . . ."

Fredrick looked hard at his mother and mouthed 'Does she know?' Rosa nodded her head yes and then Fredrick mouthed, 'Is it okay?' Again, Rosa nodded.

"I guess we'll probably, that is . . ." Catherine continued to stumble over her response.

"I know what we should do," Fredrick said, standing, immediately becoming the center of attention.

Rosa's eyes widened and she titled her head toward the captain, trying to get Fredrick to stop talking before it was too late.

Suddenly, Luc realized that all eyes were on him. "What? I already know."

"You know?" Catherine asked flatly. "How do you know?"

"Danielle told me," Luc said, smiling at the queen. "But it's not like I couldn't have figured it out by just looking at them. You'd have to be blind!"

"Oh my goodness," Catherine laughed. "Then we're all on the same page here?"

They all shook their heads and laughed, letting out a collective sigh.

"In that case," Fredrick said. "I think I have an answer for us. It'll make the king happy and give Maria and Danielle a chance to be together. I'll marry the princess and she can stay here and be with Maria."

"Fredrick," Rosa said. "Think about what you're saying. That would mean you would have to give up your life and live a lie. This is not a game, Fredrick."

"No, it's not, and neither is the love between the two women in the room above us!" Fredrick said sternly. "Does anyone here doubt that their connection is bigger than all of this?"

The room fell silent.

"It won't work," Catherine said slowly. "The king will want grandchildren. He'll demand it! How do you think Danielle and Maria will feel about that? And you, Fredrick, how will that make you feel?"

"I'm sure we could just say that Danielle was barren," Fredrick said seriously, blushing at the word.
"I suppose so," Catherine said. "But there's more to it than that. He'll want you to stay in France for awhile, maybe years, as he makes your union an example to the people of France. He'll take every opportunity to proclaim that the joining of your hearts has forged an alliance between France and Spain. You'll be on display for the whole world. Are you up for that kind of scrutiny?"

"I can handle it!" Fredrick said boldly.

"Yes, but can your sister?" Catherine said, walking to Fredrick, placing her hands on his shoulders and looking him straight in the eye. "I appreciate what you are trying to do for Maria and my daughter, but think about it. Maria will be forced to watch you engaged in intimacies and even though she'll know they are false, it will still be painful for her to see. Maria is a strong-willed woman. What is she going to do during this time? Hang around like some handmaiden, pretending to be loyally following her brother around? Is that Maria? Is that the woman you'd have her become? How long do you think it will take before she breaks?" 

Fredrick sighed heavily, dropping his head in defeat.

"Danielle and Maria deserve a life better than that and so do you, Fredrick," Catherine said, bringing her hands down to his forearms. "Danielle would never hear of it anyway. She wouldn't let you do it, Fredrick. She wouldn't let you give up your life for her. That would cause her guilt that she would never be able to live with. I know my daughter."

She released his hands and moved away. "No," she said. "That will not work."

"What, then?" Rosa asked slowly. "Will you just return to France and tell the king that Danielle has refused Fredrick, or better yet, what if Fredrick refused Danielle? Wouldn't that work?"

"No, Rosa," Catherine said honestly. "God help Spain if Fredrick were to refuse the princess of France. The king would bring the wrath of God down on you and he would simply not let Danielle have the option to refuse again. He would force her to marry Fredrick."

"What do you suggest?" Luc asked, standing to join the queen.

"I may have an idea," Catherine said very slowly. "First I need to ask you all some questions."

“There are no easy answers to this dilemma,” Catherine said, sighing as she sat down.
“But, if we all work together, we might be able to pull this off.”

“Pull what off?” Rosa asked hesitantly. “I don't like the tone of your voice, Catherine.”

“There's only one way I can think of that would allow Danielle and Maria to have a life together, and believe me it's not something I'm looking forward to. It means I will probably never see Danielle again. I wish it were easier, but my daughter's position in France and the politics involved prevent it from being so,” Catherine said, taking a long, deep breath, the weight of the details of her plan showing as distress on her face.

“Luc,” she said, turning her attention to the captain, “Please tell me exactly what transpired when you and Maria rescued my daughter.”

“Certainly, your Majesty,” Luc said, looking curiously at the queen. “We arrived at Ortega's encampment at dusk and slipped in from the cliffs undetected. Following Maria's lead, we made our way to the smaller of two structures hoping to find Danielle. Maria had to permanently remove one of Ortega's guards because he was blocking our access to the window. With him out of the way, Maria was able to spot the princess inside. Under Maria's orders we split up. I was given the task of setting fire to the larger structure.”

“She wanted to create a diversion,” Fredrick interrupted.

“Yes,” Luc said, glancing at Fredrick. “She knew if we could get everyone's attention focused on the larger building, she'd have a better chance of getting Danielle out unharmed.”

“Maria's very smart,” Rosa offered, puffing her chest out just a little in pride.

“Extremely,” Luc replied, turning his attention to Rosa and smiling slightly. “Maria knew exactly what she was doing.”

“Please continue,” Catherine said eagerly.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Luc said. “I started the fire, and with the winds blowing down from the mountains it spread very quickly. I had already opened the gate to the corral and secured two horses for our escape. As the fire spread, Ortega's men sounded an alarm. The yelling, coupled with the fire, drove all the remaining horses from their pen, essentially guaranteeing no one could follow us.”

Luc paused, scanning his audience to make sure there were no more questions. “I made my way to the waiting horses and stood watch for Maria, hoping to see her emerge with Danielle from the smaller building. After a matter of minutes I saw them. The area looked clear. Maria grabbed Danielle's hand and they ran toward the designated area. It was getting pretty dark by this time,” Luc went on, swallowing hard. “I'm sorry, but it was already too late when I spotted a man on the roof. I yelled to the women and took aim with my pistol. Maria turned quickly, shielding the princess from harm's way. I hit my target and he fell to his death from the rooftop, but not before he got his round off. I'm so sorry, Rosa,” Luc said softly, lowering his head.

“Captain,” Rosa said, “You have nothing to be sorry for. You are as much a hero as the two women upstairs. You all risked your lives. I am proud of each of you.”

Luc looked up slowly and nodded his head toward Rosa, silently acknowledging her praise and forgiveness.

“Luc,” Catherine asked quickly. “Besides the man on the roof, did anyone else see Maria get shot?”

“I'm sure that many of Ortega's men heard the shots,” Luc said, raising his eyes to the ceiling and thinking hard. “But with the night settling in, no one could have seen the details or distinguished who'd been shot from that distance.”

“Are you completely certain?” Catherine asked. “This is very important.”

“Yes,” Luc said confidently. “It was too dark to see anything from that range.”

“What happened next?” Catherine asked.

“Maria was injured and unable to stand on her own, so I brought the horses to them as fast as I could,” Luc said. “Danielle mounted one of the horses and instructed me to place Maria in front of her. We rode away in the opposite direction of Ortega's advancing men. We paused only once, at a clearing, and then came straight here.”

“So,” Catherine said. “The men had no idea who'd been shot, or what shape they were in? Is that correct?”

“Exactly,” Luc said.

“Rosa,” Catherine said, looking directly at the Spanish woman. “Can you trust Dr. Sanar?”

“I trust few men more,” Rosa said honestly. “But why do you ask?”

“Besides the four of us and our daughters, he's the only one who knows the truth,” Catherine said. “Unless, that is, one of us has told someone at your villa, Rosa.”

She turned to face the captain. “Luc, when you came into the villa to tell me that Danielle was unharmed, did you stop to tell anyone else?”

“No, your Majesty,” Luc said.

“Fredrick and Rosa, did either of you talk to anyone?”

“No,” Rosa answered quickly. "I was out in the stables checking on Cora when the captain returned to the villa.”

“And I,” Fredrick jumped in. “I came into the stables and found my mother. I never saw or spoke to another soul.”

“That leaves only the doctor,” Catherine said very slowly, closing her eyes in thought.

“Your Majesty,” Luc said softly, walking over to kneel in front of his queen. “Are you . . . are you planning on pretending that Danielle has been killed?”

“I'm so sorry, but yes, it's the only thing that will work,” Catherine said, looking into the gentle eyes of her friend. “As much as I hate the idea, it's the only way she'll be free of her responsibilities and the commitments of her rank and status. It saddens me, but I have no other solution. Danielle will have to agree to it and we'll have to alter her appearance as well."

“Catherine,” Rosa said. “You do realize that no matter how much you alter her appearance, she'll still be a French woman in Spain. It will be too obvious if they stay around here. Maria and Danielle could never live at the villa undetected.”

“I thought that would probably be the case,” Catherine said, tears forming in her eyes. “I knew Danielle would never be able to return to France and I did wonder about them staying in Spain. I'm very sorry, Rosa, but can you think of any other way for our two daughters to have a life with each other?”

“No, Catherine,” Rosa said. “Not having Maria with me will cause me great pain, but knowing that she'll be with Danielle and have a chance at happiness will lessen my heartache.”

A silence hung in the room as the four occupants mulled over the words that had just been spoken. The premise was so simple, but the details needed to be planned very carefully. Faking anyone's death was tricky at best, and adding a princess to the mix complicated things even more.

“We'll have to hide Danielle from now on,” Catherine said, sniffing back tears. “Until Maria is well enough to travel, we'll need to keep my daughter from being seen by anyone—and Rosa, you'll need to talk to the doctor straight away.”

“Once we're sure that Dr. Sanar is with us, I think it would be appropriate to make an official statement from the house of Cordoba regarding the kidnapping and death,” Fredrick said softly. “The longer we wait, the more we risk talk and the chance that the truth could get out.”

“That's true, Catherine,” Rosa said. “We should send official word to the king of Spain, denouncing the action of Ortega's band of dissidents as well as sending our condolences and deepest regrets on the loss of the princess.”

“I'll need to send an urgent message to France,” Catherine said. “And, Luc, I'm sorry to put you in this position, but you'll need to be the eyewitness to Danielle's death. The king will believe it coming from you.”

Luc nodded his head and swallowed hard. He'd never lied to the king and if this deceit were ever brought to the light of day, it would mean his certain death. Yet knowing that he could help to make Danielle's life happy made his fear fade as quickly as it had come.

“We still have one problem,” Rosa said. “I'm not sure that Maria will agree to this. She'll think of Danielle first and knowing my daughter, she'll not want Danielle subjected to the kind of life they'll have to live.”

“Maria has met her match with my daughter,” Catherine said. “If Danielle makes up her mind to go through with it, Maria will have no choice but to accept it.”

“Oh, really,” Rosa chuckled. “Care to place a wager on that?”

“You're on,” Catherine laughed loudly, putting aside the seriousness of the situation to find joy in how perfectly matched their two daughters seemed to be.

“Now,” Catherine continued, sobering quickly. “Let's hope we can pull this off.”

Upstairs, Danielle watched Maria sleep. The simple joy of it amazed her. Just being in the same room with the dark woman was enough to fill Danielle's heart and ease the longing she felt when she was out of her sight. Her life had been out of balance until the day that she'd finally found Maria. She studied the tall woman's features, delighting in the way her dark hair fell casually along her strong jaw. Never in her life had she seen such beauty mixed with the strength that radiated from this Spanish woman; even in her slumber it was visible. Danielle promised herself that she would memorize every inch of Maria, just in case they were separated for any length of time. She silently stole glances of her tanned, muscular body, lifting up the sheet and then laughing at herself for doing so.

'Look what I've come to,' Danielle thought. 'All I can do is dream of the day that I feel you, your body lying next to me, on top of me. I want your arms surrounding me forever, Maria. I need that. We have to find a way to be together, my love.'

Sitting back, heated from her thoughts, Danielle took a deep breath and sighed. The footsteps coming up the stairs jarred her from her visions.

“Danielle,” Catherine whispered, seeing Maria fast asleep. “I need to talk to you. It's very important. Can you come downstairs so we can talk?”

“Sure, Mother,” Danielle stood up. “Is everything all right?”

“That depends on you, my dear,” Catherine said softly, before leaving the room.

Danielle swallowed hard, turning to kiss Maria lightly on the cheek before she left. “Something tells me my mother has been up to something, Maria. I hope you wake up soon. I have a feeling our future is being planned in your absence. I love you.”

Danielle left the room reluctantly. She was sure that Maria was sleeping soundly and was for all practical purposes completely out of danger physically, so her hesitation had nothing to do with worry about Maria and everything to do with her anxiety over the conversation she was about to have with her mother. She let out a slow breath as she descended the stairs. So much had happened in the short time that they had come to Spain. The reason for the trip was not far from Danielle's mind, however, and she knew this journey was supposed to end in her marriage to Maria's brother.

'Oh, God, how did this all happen?' Danielle thought as she walked into the sitting room. Pausing, she saw four sets of eyes staring in her direction.

“Why do I feel like falling to my knees and begging for mercy?” Danielle choked out. Not one person said a word. “That was supposed to be a joke.”

“Danielle,” Catherine said, patting the seat next to her. “Come over here and sit down, please.”

Danielle walked slowly to her mother's side and sat. The queen reached over and picked up her daughter's hand.

“I love you and so does your father,” Catherine said. “But he would never be able to understand this connection that you and Maria share. To him, there is only one thing that would be suitable for you and that would be to marry a nobleman. It's tradition and we both know how much that means to your father and the kingdom of France.”

“I understand that, Mother, but . . .”

“Wait, Danielle, let me finish, please,” Catherine picked up Danielle's other hand, looking directly into her eyes. “You deserve this chance with Maria, we all see that.”

Danielle felt her eyes growing wet as she listened to the words. Looking past her mother she saw Fredrick sitting across the room. He smiled at her and winked.

“Fredrick made an offer to marry you in name only, which would allow you to stay here and be with Maria,” Catherine said.

As Danielle continued to look in his direction, her tears began to flow.

“That was one of the most unselfish acts I have ever witnessed and is a testament to his love for Maria,” Catherine added.

“I can't allow that,” Danielle said through her tears. “As much as I am truly grateful for your offer, you deserve to be loved by someone who will be able to give you everything befitting a true marriage. I could never let you live your life like that.”

“I told you she'd say that,” Catherine said turning, to look at Rosa. “It's all right, Danielle, there are other reasons that it could never work and that is why we have only one other option.”

“What do you mean only one other option?” Danielle asked.

“The only way you can be free of your title and the obligations bestowed upon you is for you to disappear,” Catherine said carefully.

“Disappear? And just how am I to disappear?”

“Well,” Catherine said. “What I mean is we would have to make it look like you had . . . that is we would have to . . . Oh, Danielle, we would need to fake your death.”

Danielle sat wide-eyed, her mouth slightly agape. She knew she'd heard her mother correctly. Fake her death. The idea of it started to take shape. If she were dead, she would never be expected to marry, never be expected to live up to her father's expectations, she would be free, she would . . . she would never see her parents again, or ever be able to return to France. Her tears returned.

“I know this is a lot for you to take in,” Catherine said, crying, as she patted her daughter's back. “Believe me, I know it means that I may never see you again, but I think knowing that you were given a chance at true happiness, true love . . . well, that alone makes it seem less overwhelming.”

Danielle looked into her mother's eyes. So many sacrifices were being made, and this was the biggest sacrifice of all.

“Mother,” Danielle said. “I love you, I'm not sure I could bear the thought of leaving you.”

“How about leaving Maria?” Catherine asked. “Envision your life without her, and tell me how you could bear that.”

Danielle dropped her head and, weeping, brought her hands to her face.

“Just as I thought,” Catherine said softly.

Danielle slowly composed herself and with all the courage she could muster, rose and addressed the people who loved and cared for her and Maria.

“I can think of no greater gift than what all of you are offering Maria and me,” Danielle said taking a deep breath. “I know you've put a good deal of love and thought into this fabrication and are willing to give up much to allow us this chance. Somewhere in the back of my mind I prayed that Maria and I would get an opportunity to be together, but honestly, I thought it wouldn't come without a considerable struggle and I never, ever, realized how much I would have to give up.”

“We love you both very much,” Rosa said. “But, if you have any doubts about this, now is the time for you to make them known.”

Danielle walked to Rosa and knelt down in front of the Spanish woman, taking her hand and holding it in her own. Looking into the eyes of the woman who had brought Maria into world, Danielle saw her doubt and knew she needed to put Rosa's mind at ease.

“I love Maria,” Danielle said softly. “I will never be able to tell you exactly how much. This bond we share is not of this earth, it's stronger and more spiritual than anything I have ever seen. If the story my mother shared with me is true, then I have no doubt that Maria is the other half of my soul. I do not question that it's Maria that I want to be with for the rest of my living days. I promise you that my love for her will never die, and as long as she wants me to be by her side, it is there that you will find me.”

“It seems you were destined for each other,” Rosa leaned forward and kissed Danielle on the cheek. “I remember the look in Maria's eyes when she first met you that day in the garden. I had never seen Maria stumble over her words or act so unsure of herself as she did when she saw you. I knew then that she had fallen, but I wondered if you felt the same for her.”

“And now?” Danielle asked.

“Now . . . now I am certain of it and it couldn't make me any happier,” Rosa said, pulling back and studying Danielle's face. She watched as Danielle smiled, and it filled her heart to know that Maria was so deeply loved by a young woman whom she admired and cared for. Few things in life were cut and dried, but this bond was strong and undeniable, and it filled Rosa with joy.

“We have a lot to do now, Danielle,” Rosa said seriously. “But the first thing we need to do is make sure Maria agrees to our illusion; after all, she is a part of this.”

“Yes, of course,” Danielle said, standing. “I know she loves me, but agreeing to something of this magnitude will take some convincing, if I'm not mistaken.”

“You really do know my daughter, don't you?” Rosa chuckled. “She'll be thinking of you, Danielle, and your safety. That will be at the forefront of her mind. The life you will be living will be difficult, and Maria will not like you subjected to it.”

“Danielle,” Catherine interrupted, looking at her daughter. “You do realize that we will have to change your appearance and you will have to leave Spain as well?”

“I knew it would mean drastic changes,” Danielle swallowed hard. “I'm willing to make them and I think once I convince Maria of it and my commitment to her, she'll come around.”

“She'd be a fool not to,” Fredrick said, finally stepping in to voice his support. “If she gives you too much resistance, just come and find me. I might have a way of convincing her.” He winked at Danielle and gave her a big grin.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Danielle laughed. “I'd better go up and tend to our patient. As soon as she wakes up, I'll talk to her. Please don't do anything until we've come to an agreement on all of this. I love you all very much. You will never now what this means to me. I am truly the luckiest woman alive.”

Danielle turned and walked out of the room. Small tears formed again as she thought of the love of her family and friends and the sacrifices that were being offered for her and Maria.

Danielle walked into the room and looked down on the foot of the bed at the dog, whose tail was wagging. She petted Cora on the head and scratched her behind the ears. Maria still slept soundly and she didn't want to wake her just yet; her body needed to heal and the best thing she could do was rest. Sitting in the chair next to the bed, she leaned back and watched the slow rise and fall of the tall woman's chest. Danielle let her thoughts drift back to the beginning of their connection as she closed her eyes.

'It's still so hard for me to believe I actually found you. I was so confused and scared at first, but I could not deny the feelings that I felt for you and the responses that you evoked in me,' Danielle thought. 'You tried to deny us at first and I cannot blame you, but even you realize now that we are only complete when we're with each other. You must allow us this chance together.'

Danielle stopped her musing, and when she turned her attention back to the bed she was surprised to see gentle blue eyes looking at her.

“How are you feeling?” Danielle asked.

“Like I've been trampled by a horse, but it could be worse,” Maria yawned and tried to stretch but grimaced in pain as she felt the sharp ache in her side return. “Not much worse, though.”

“You just take it easy, Maria,” Danielle said leaning forward. “You're going to need your strength very soon.”

“I'll assume there's a reason you just said that?”

“We seem to have a lot to talk about,” Danielle smiled and reached down to grab the Spanish woman's hand. She took her other hand and lightly ran her fingers up the inside of the dark arm. “As much as I would like to let this wait until later when you have healed more, I'm afraid we need to talk now.”

“Umm hmm,” Maria said, trying to concentrate. All she could think about at the moment was how good Danielle's fingers felt running up and down her arm. The trail of her touches was causing her head to swim, and she closed her eyes enjoying the sensations. “Go ahead . . . tell me what's going on in your head, Princess.”

“Well, to begin with,” Danielle said continuing her manipulations, “You can never call me that again. The princess is no longer with us.”

“What?” Maria's eyes snapped open. “What are you talking about?”

“Just relax,” Danielle said slowly. “This is going to be a little hard to explain, but believe me, the result could mean that you and I will get our chance to be together. First, though, I need to tell you some things, Maria. You know that I have dreamt of your eyes since I was very young and I knew immediately when I saw you that it was you I had wished for all my life. I prayed to find you. I was surprised at first that those blue eyes of my dreams belonged to a woman. I tried to fight the feelings at first because they were new to me. But, I've never . . . I've never . . . what I'm trying to tell you is that I've never felt for anyone the way I feel for you. I love you, Maria, heart and soul. It's you I want to hold and you I want to be with night and day. I love you so much, Maria. When I thought you might not make it, it tore me apart. I felt like a piece of me was slipping away also. It's hard for me to explain, but I need you. I feel like our souls are connected and I can't imagine being separated from you ever again. You told me you loved me, but do you feel these things, Maria?”

Maria looked at the beautiful woman still holding her hand and felt her heart beating faster. This was it, this was what she had dreamt of and hoped for. Of course she felt the same, but she'd never been very good at expressing her emotions. She wanted Danielle in every way possible and she knew all too well how her life had changed when the princess came into it. It scared Maria in many ways. She had never been vulnerable before and this woman had invaded her heart and left her defenseless. But, just as Danielle had said, she couldn't fathom the thought of being separated from her. She was hopelessly in love with this woman, the princess of France, the woman who had been intended for her brother, and nothing could change that.

“Danielle,” Maria said squeezing the soft hand in her grasp. “Everything I have known to be true in my life has been changed. I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that it scares me, but what scares me more is the thought of you leaving me. Now that I know what this connection feels like and how much you love me, I think my heart would simply stop beating if we were separated. I love you. You are my world. I want you with me forever. Don't you ever doubt that again.”

Danielle stood and leaned down to capture Maria's lips in a kiss that sealed their love. It was slow and soft and passionate, different from the heated and urgent kisses that they'd shared before they had committed their hearts to each other. This kiss was intentional and deliberate. Maria's hand moved up to Danielle's neck and she pulled her a little closer as she ran her fingers into the back of the soft blonde hair at the base of her neck. Their tongues mingled together and they slowly explored each other, moaning softly as their breathing turned ragged with a building passion. Maria let her tongue run across Danielle's lower lip and then captured it, sucking softly. Danielle moaned louder and then pulled away to look at the beautiful woman causing these reactions in her body.

“Oh, Maria,” Danielle said blushing, bringing her hand to the dark woman's cheek. “The things you do to me. Every time we touch the feelings seem stronger and more intense. I love you.”

"I feel exactly the same way, my love," Maria said covering the small hand holding her face with her own. She took Danielle's hand and moved it down to rest upon her rapidly beating heart. "Do you feel that? That's what you do to me. The desire for you consumes me."

Danielle's own desire raged as she sat back down. No words could begin to describe how her body responded to this Spanish woman. In her wildest dreams, she'd never imagined it would feel like this. When their lips connected, Danielle's body melted into the embrace, leaving her unable to distinguish her skin from Maria's. It was as if their emotions and passion mixed together and became the blood in her veins, allowing her to live and breathe. She truly came alive when Maria touched her.

Maria watched as a glow burned in the green eyes of the young woman whose hand she held to her heart.

“What are you thinking right now?” Maria asked.

“Thinking is something that I don't do very well when I'm around you. Why is it that you are the only person I've met who can leave me unable to form a coherent sentence?”

Maria smirked and raised her shoulders in a shrug, unable to answer that question.

“Well, whatever the reason,” Danielle said, “This feeling, the one I have right now, I wouldn't trade it for all the riches in this vast world.”

They sat, completely lost in each other's eyes. After a few moments, a peace overtook both women at the recognition of two souls united.

Cora rolled over and barked, causing them to pull away from their gaze, laughing.

“She's good at ruining the mood,” Danielle teased and ran her right hand down the little dog's back. Cora wagged her tail in response.

“She likes you and that's pretty rare,” Maria smiled. “Now, what is this about the 'princess' being gone?”

“That's a bit complicated,” Danielle leaned back but left her hand securely wrapped in Maria's. “I'm going to tell you the whole story, but you have to promise me that you'll let me get it all out before you interrupt. Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Our families love us very much, Maria. We both know that. They've devised a plan that would allow us to be together, but we will both have to give up our lives as we have known them.”

“I'm still listening,” Maria said.

“Fredrick wanted to marry me in name only, allowing me to stay here in Spain and be with you . . .”

“Hold on . . .” Maria interrupted but was stopped abruptly by a small hand covering her mouth.

“You promised!” Danielle said, looking sternly at blue eyes.

Maria sighed and nodded her head in resignation.

Danielle slowly removed her hand. “For many reasons, that would not have worked, the least of which being that I could not allow Fredrick to give up his chance of finding what you and I have. He deserves to be loved and I could not live with myself knowing he sacrificed that for us.”

Maria shook her head in approval but did not speak.

“Now, this next part is where I need you to be umm . . . to be flexible,” Danielle said.

Maria narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips together.

“Let's say that while trying to escape from her captors, the princess of France was fatally wounded. In that scenario, since the princess was dead, the young man from Spain would not have a wife to marry and in turn, all obligations to her title and country would expire with her last breath,” Danielle said.

Danielle watched as Maria closed her eyes and knotted the sheet into a ball with her free hand.

“Now, envision a young woman with say, short hair, dressed differently, with a new name, who loved a Spanish woman more than her own life,” Danielle bent down and kissed Maria's cheek.

“Can I speak now?” Maria opened her eyes.


“I love you, Danielle, but what you are talking about here is much more than a change of identity. Do you understand that?”

“I know, my love,” Danielle said. “I realize that I could never return to France or see my mother or father again and that we, for all practical purposes, would be living a lie. I'm willing to accept this fate if it means I'll be with you. Our families believe, however, that we would have to leave Spain, and that means you would have to leave the villa and the people you care about. That's a lot for you to give up.”

“It's not just that,” Maria swallowed. “You are a princess, you've been accustomed to the finest things that this world has had to offer. Fine china to eat off, servants to bathe you, dress you, and take care of your every need. And just where would we go, two women travelling alone? Do you know what a life on the road would consist of? Sleeping on the ground, searching or hunting for our next meal--and the dangers we could encounter. What if we are attacked? This is not a masquerade ball, Danielle.”

“But I will be with you, Maria. I can adapt with your help, and I'm not as helpless as some people think.”

“I can't let you be subjected to this, Danielle. You are royalty. You shouldn't be reduced to peasant status just to be with me. You don't deserve to live that kind of life.”

“I think I should be able to make that choice for myself and I choose us, Maria,” Danielle said, raising her voice. “I choose whatever that will mean.”

“Well, I don't,” Maria snapped. “It's not what you were meant to do.”

“Meant to do? Not what I was meant to do? I suppose marrying some man for the sake of my father's political goals is exactly what I was meant to do. I was meant to love you, Maria. Look at me and tell me that you don't feel that.”

Maria ground her teeth together in frustration and didn't answer.

Danielle stood up and walked across the room. “Maybe it's you that can't make this choice. Is that it, Maria? Is it too much for you to give up? Are we not worth these sacrifices?”

“That's not it!”

“Well, then what are you saying? Help me to understand, because right now it looks like you don't want this.”

“That's not what I think!”

“What then?” Danielle begged.

“What if . . . what if . . .”

“What if what?” Danielle felt tears begin to well in her eyes.

“What if something happened to me? What if I wasn't able to protect you? I couldn't stand to think that you could be harmed because you chose to be with me and live a life on the run,” Maria said hanging her head.

Danielle moved back to the bed and sat down. She placed her hand on the tall woman's cheek, lifting her head to look into her eyes. “Is that what all of this is about?”

“I seem to become distracted around you,” Maria said softly. “I wasn't there to protect you from being kidnapped in the first place, and I should have seen that coming. I let my guard down. My emotions got in the way. I never let my emotions get the best of me and because I was distracted, Ortega was able to get the upper hand. I would rather die than see you harmed again.”

“You saved me, Maria,” Danielle said. “It was you who freed me from Ortega. Have you forgotten?”

“No,” Maria said. “I have not forgotten, and I have not forgotten that you were almost killed because I didn't take the time to make sure that our path to the horses was secure. I should have seen that man on the roof!”

“But it was you who saved me again,” Danielle said. “You stepped in the line of fire and risked your life to save mine. Maria, I trust you with my life, but there are no guarantees.”

“Well, that's not good enough,” Maria sighed. “Your life is too important to be put at risk. I won't have that.”

“Why, because I'm a princess, or because you love me and you're afraid that if something happened to me that you'd be alone and you couldn't take that?”

Maria closed her eyes. That was true. She couldn't imagine her life without Danielle in it. When she thought of it, it felt like the weight of a mountain sitting on her chest, crushing her lungs.

“That's it, isn't it?” Danielle asked softly. “I understand that feeling, Maria, but we can't let our fear keep us from this opportunity. You can have me now and risk losing me in the future, or you can lose me right now.”

“Do you have fun doing that?” Maria asked, opening her eyes.

“Doing what?”

“Exposing my vulnerabilities like that.”

“Your weaknesses are the same as mine,” Danielle said. “I know what you're feeling because I feel the very same thing. Now that we've found each other, we are forever connected, body and soul. I honestly think that if I was separated from you that my spirit would die, and in a matter of time the flesh would die right along with it. So, the way I see it, I'd actually have a much longer life span by staying with you and taking my chances.”

“You really feel that?”

“Yes, don't you?”

“Yes, but I was too ashamed to admit it. I thought you'd think I was weak.”

“You are many things, Maria, but weak is definitely not one of them.” Danielle said, smiling.

“And you, Princess, are no longer a princess,” Maria sighed, finally giving in. “What shall I call you now?”

“Hmm,” Danielle said. “What do you think of Margaret?”

Maria frowned.

“Perhaps not,” Danielle smiled. “Why don't we leave that decision for later. Right now there's something I need to do.”

“And that would be?''

Danielle leaned down and kissed Maria passionately.

King Louis XIV watched as his lieutenant returned from the villa. He hadn't had a moment's peace since they'd left France. Within days of his wife and daughter's departure, a messenger had arrived with word of the insurrections occurring in many areas of Spain. The information up until then had been that everything seemed to have quieted down, and it saddened Louis to think that he had unknowingly sent the people he loved into danger. Most disturbing was the report said that the largest gang of dissidents was last spotted in the exact area that his family was headed. The king pulled together the French army and made the decision to follow them. Also, he sent a scout ahead to warn Captain Luc, who was in charge of the expedition carrying the queen and Danielle.

Now, almost a month later, they'd finally made it to the Cordoba villa. They'd never heard back from the scout and Louis was very worried. He'd pressed the army hard and hoped that he was only a few days behind his wife and daughter's arrival in Spain. It was midday and the entourage was tired from their travels.

“What's the word?” the king asked impatiently, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“The scout never made it, Your Majesty, but the royal carriage arrived three days ago. However, not without some serious problems. They were attacked on their way here and two men were killed, many more were injured. Luckily the queen and Danielle were unharmed, but . . .” the lieutenant paused, unsure of how to tell the king the next news.

“Damn, man, but what?” Louis asked.

“But now, Danielle has been kidnapped,” the French officer said quietly, dropping his head.

“What? Where is the queen? Is Luc inside?” The king dismounted his horse and walked past the lieutenant, headed for the villa; he'd never moved so fast in his life. The news of Danielle had him badly shaken.

“Your Majesty,” the lieutenant yelled. “They're not here.”

The king stopped dead in mid-stride and turned around, staring at the young man whose face was a bright shade of red. “Where are they!”

“The cook said that the lady of the house, her son, and Luc and the queen all left in a hurry late last evening and haven't returned. She said they went to the doctor's villa up the road, but she couldn't tell me anything more. She said they left very quickly. The doctor's residence is the one we saw a couple of miles back.”

On shaky legs the king quickly walked back to his mount. “Captain, bring your men and follow me. Lieutenant, you stay here and find out any other information you can from the people inside.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the lieutenant said, coming to attention at his orders.

Catherine looked over at Rosa and sighed heavily. They were worn out from lack of sleep and worry for Maria. Now they sat, waiting for word from Danielle on what their next steps would be. Fredrick stood to stretch his long frame and yawned deeply.

“Should I go up and check on them?” he asked.

“Let's give them a couple of moments more,” Catherine said. “We need to get moving soon, though. We can't let this day pass without getting a message out to France.”

Upstairs, Danielle was lost in the feelings she was having for the older woman whose lips were eagerly devouring her own. She knew Maria was still weak from her injuries and tried to end the kissing. She could barely breathe herself from the intensity of the passion, and she was certain that Maria's damaged lung couldn't possibly be healed enough for this kind of activity.

“Hmm, Maria,” Danielle whispered into the soft ear next to her lips, “you have no idea what happens to me when you kiss me like that.”

“I think I might,” Maria sighed and grinned. “Let's just say I'm glad I'm lying down because I'm sure I'd be unable to stand right now, and that would have nothing to do with my current injury.”

Danielle pulled back a little, smiling, and looked at the warm eyes she loved. Slowly she kissed the inside of Maria's palm, and then seductively made her way up the older women's arm kissing, and lightly nipping the skin past her elbow to her collarbone and then along her smooth neck, coming to rest finally at her soft earlobe, gently sucking it. “I want to taste every inch of you, and when you're all healed, I promise to make you unsteady on your feet every day for the rest of our lives.”

Maria couldn't stifle the soft growl that escaped her lips. She was surprised and aroused by Danielle's assertiveness. Just thinking of the young woman's lips on her skin caused a dropping sensation in her stomach and a flood of wetness between her legs. She could hardly contain her passion and longed for the day they took their relationship to the next intimate step. It was obvious that Danielle thought of that day also.

“I can't wait to hold you in my arms,” Maria said. “I want you so badly.”

“And I, you,” Danielle whispered. “I'm going downstairs to tell your mother and mine that we agree to this deception. You're sure you want this?”

“I'm sure I want you and if it means this, then how can I not agree?”

“I knew you'd see it my way,” Danielle teased. “My mother always said I was very persuasive.”

“That you are,” Maria winked.

The French army stopped outside of the doctor's villa and two regents escorted the king to the door. Knocking loudly, the regents waited but a moment and then forced the door open. Danielle was on the bottom step when she heard the noise and jumped as the door swung in and two men bolted through. To her surprise and horror she recognized their uniforms, and as she looked past them she watched as her father made his entrance. Their eyes met immediately.

“Danielle! I was so worried. We were told that you'd been kidnapped,” Louis crossed the floor and threw his arms around his daughter. To his amazement the young woman's legs gave out and she passed out in his grasp.

“Danielle! What's wrong, child?” Louis sat down, cradling his daughter, and lightly patted her face with his palm in an effort to revive her.

Catherine was on her feet as soon as she heard her husband's voice. She came into the room as Danielle lost consciousness and couldn't believe what she was seeing. Louis was in Spain.

Louis looked up and caught his wife's eyes. “Catherine, what's wrong with her? Was she kidnapped? Did someone hurt her?”

“Oh, Louis,” Catherine said moving to the stairs to kneel in front of her husband and daughter. “So much has happened. Yes, she was kidnapped, but she was rescued and she was unharmed. I think she's just in shock at seeing you here. It's a big surprise . . . for all of us.”

“Are you sure she's okay? Where's the doctor?” Louis asked loudly, searching the room for help.

Luc ran to the queen's side and stood behind her, whispering, “Should I get the doctor, Your Majesty?”

“Have him bring the smelling salts,” Catherine said. “She's just had a huge scare . . . I mean surprise and I'm sure she'll be just fine.”

Louis scrunched his brows together and looked down at his daughter. “This isn't like her at all, Catherine. She's never reacted like this before. Our daughter is one of the hardiest young women I know. She's never been a frail flower. Doesn't this concern you?”

“Much has changed about Danielle since we've been here,” Catherine said, swallowing hard.

“You've only been gone a short time,” Louis said, looking back at the queen. “What could have possibly happened to be causing this?”

“More than you could ever guess.” Catherine sighed. “Let's get her to the sofa; we really must talk.”

The king carried his daughter to the sitting room and laid her on the sofa. The doctor came in with the salts and Danielle responded by opening her eyes. As soon as she saw her father, tears began to form. She tried to speak but was still too badly shaken. The doctor assured the king that she would be just fine and after a great deal of persuasion from his wife, Louis agreed to leave Danielle and follow the queen to a separate room.

As the door closed, all remaining eyes fell back to Danielle.

“What will she tell him?” Fredrick asked.

“I . . . I'm . . . not . . . sure,” Danielle said raggedly. She felt like she had forgotten how to breathe. “Our plans . . . it's all . . . it's all ruined.”

“Maybe not,” Fredrick said, taking the princess's hand to soothe her. “We could still get married, and even though it's not the best option it still gives you and Maria a chance.”

“Oh, Fredrick,” Danielle said, finally regaining her composure. “We both know that wouldn't really work.”

Rosa paced back and forth, unable to think of what they could possibly do now.

“Give the queen a chance,” Luc insisted. “She's been the one who's gotten us to this point so far. Maybe she still has one more miracle in her bag of magic.”

Danielle slowly sat upright and looked at her friend. “And what if she doesn't, Luc? What if he forces me to go back to France? Or what if he insists on this marriage? What should I do then?”

“We'll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Luc said. “I have faith in your mother; she'll think of something.”

Danielle gave everyone her best fake smile. Standing, she made the decision to go tell Maria what had happened. If her father came out of that room angry, she knew she might not get the chance to see Maria again, and that was all she could think about.

“I'm going to Maria,” Danielle said. “Luc, come and get me when they come out of there.”

“Yes, of course,” Luc said.

Maria heard the ruckus and tried to get out of bed. She was sure she'd heard a man shouting Danielle's name. She needed to get to her. The pain in her side was easing, but it still throbbed whenever she moved too fast. Slowly she eased her feet around and placed them on the floor. Leaning on the headboard, she began to stand but fell back as the shooting pain and shortness of breath stopped her movement.

“Damn it! What's going on down there?” She coughed out.

Cora looked at her and moved closer for support. Although the dog could stand on all fours now, jumping down was still not something she'd attempted yet.

“We're quite the pair, you and I,” Maria said, looking over at her pet.

Danielle walked in and saw Maria sitting on the edge of the bed, holding her side. The sheet had fallen around her waist and she sat with her breasts exposed, wearing only a bloody bandage. Her face was very pale and beads of sweat were forming on her forehead.

“What do you think you're doing?”

Maria looked up. “Trying to get to you. Are you okay? What did I just hear?”

“Have you lost your mind? You could have opened that wound. You lie back down this instant,” Danielle said, ignoring Maria's questions and trying not to stare at the beautiful half-naked woman as she gently lifted Maria's feet and tucked them back under the sheet, then helped her lean back onto the bed.

“What's going on?” Maria asked through her pain as she pulled the sheet back over her bosom.

Danielle sat down and looked at Maria. She was trying to be strong, but it was all she could do not to just fall into the Spanish women's arms and weep.

“You're scaring me, Danielle,” Maria said. “Are you okay?”

“My father,” Danielle said very slowly. “He's here. He came through the door as I walked down the steps.”

“He's in Spain? He saw you?” Maria asked, her eyes wide in disbelief.

“Yes,” Danielle began to cry. “I was caught off guard and when the realization of what it meant hit me, I fainted into his arms.”

“Where is he now?” Maria asked quickly.

“My mother is talking to him,” Danielle sobbed. “Oh, Maria, this could all be over, you and I, our chance to be together, it could be over.”

“Come here, Danielle,” Maria said, holding her arms out to the woman she loved. Gingerly she scooted over to make room for Danielle on the bed. She knew that she needed to be strong for the princess. This turn of events could spell the end of their hopes and dreams and Maria knew the effect it was having on the both of them.

Danielle carefully climbed up on the bed and then lay down next to Maria, placing her head on the strong woman's shoulder. Maria wrapped her arm around the younger woman and held her while she cried. She whispered words of love and devotion as she ran her fingers through the blonde's hair, trying to calm her sobs. Maria silently prayed that they could both make it through this. They had come so close to happiness together.

Luc looked over at Rosa and then back to the door that separated the king and queen from the rest of the villa, at least for the moment. His mind raced, and for a man who was known to keep his calm during the fiercest fighting, he felt almost shaky with anticipation. The king's reaction to the news of the events of the last few days had the potential to change many people's lives.

The decisions that Luc had made while in Spain regarding the safety of the king's daughter were sure to be discussed, and he knew his fate was hanging in the balance — but that was not his first concern. Luc had known Louis to be incredibly cruel and then the next day to be wholeheartedly compassionate toward someone or something. Luc hoped that the king's humanity would reign supreme this day; if not in his favor then — he prayed — in Danielle's.

Louis loved Danielle and although he rarely found time to spend with his youngest daughter, the captain had been privy to conversations with the king in which he couldn't hide his admiration for her. Luc remembered one time in particular when the king had been angry at her for once again hiding herself within the castle walls.

She was probably no more than five when she'd started that game. She took pride in being able to find new and creative places to conceal herself. Her goal was always the same — outwit everyone long enough to have her father send for Luc. The princess and Luc shared a friendship that they both enjoyed. He loved her good nature and silliness, and she loved him for taking the time to play with her and for never forgetting to tell her that she was his favorite girl in the whole world.

Luc got good at guessing her next hiding spot and always found her. He smiled as he remembered her reaction to being found by the captain. Danielle would raise her little hands in victory and march to the beat of a song she made up in her head, singing “I'm smarter than they are, I'm brighter by far, I'm the best solider around and the next time I won't be found.” Luc laughed aloud at his memory of her little voice singing in triumph.

“What on earth could you possibly be laughing about?” Rosa asked, looking over at the captain, who couldn't hide the smile on his face.

“Oh, forgive me, Mademe,” Luc said. “I was remembering a time when Danielle was very young.”

“She's a very special girl, isn't she, Luc?”

“Yes, she certainly is.” Luc smiled at the Spanish woman whom he held in high esteem. “The same can be said of Maria as well. You've done a wonderful job of raising your children.”

“Thank you, Luc,” Rosa smiled and blushed a little. “I love my children very much. I have no doubt that the king feels the same for Danielle.”

“Yes,” Luc said, “I know that the king loves his daughter, I just worry that he'll be thinking of much more than what Danielle wants. As the ruler of France, he obviously has other interests that affect many people.”

“I'll pray he comes to his decision based on what his heart tells him in this situation,” Rosa said.

“I was just hoping the exact same thing.”

Luc turned toward the window, lost in his memories again. It was soon after Danielle's tenth birthday. Morning came and Danielle did not appear for breakfast. The king sent four men to search for her and after much of the morning had passed with no luck in turning up the small child, the king called for Luc. He started out by telling the captain how maddening it was to constantly have to look for his daughter and ended up by praising her for how smart she had gotten at this game. As Luc remembered, the king had actually said that if even a third of his army had the abilities that his ten-year-old daughter had, he'd be the ruler of more than just France. The memory made the captain's smile return.

Danielle was everything a father could be proud of: smart, witty, loyal, amiable, and beautiful. Luc couldn't be more proud of her if she was his own daughter and since his life had been given to his country and king, she was to him just that — the daughter he'd never had. He loved the princess and wished that she'd had her chance to be with Maria. As time went by, Luc began to feel that possibility slipping away.

“Louis,” Catherine sighed. “I know it's hard to believe, but everything I've told you is the truth.”

Catherine leaned back, out of breath from explaining to her husband all the events that had led to the present moment. She had decided that at that point anything less than the truth was too risky. She didn't miss a single detail and even though Louis's expression was one of disbelief, he hadn't, to her surprise, raised his voice or stormed out of the room in anger. Actually, he seemed moved by the loyalty that had been shown toward his daughter.

“You're telling me that even Luc agreed to go through with this deceit?” The king stood, placing his hands on his hips.

“Don't blame him. I told you, I'm the one that came up with this,” Catherine said.

“You're her mother, of course you'd do anything to see her happy. But the captain, what's his reason?” Louis asked.

“I should think that was obvious,” Catherine said. “He loves her, Louis. He thinks of her as his own child.”

Louis walked across the floor and stopped, thinking. Not only had the captain shown his loyalty to the princess, but she'd also won over the entire Cordoba family. He couldn't believe that Fredrick had offered to marry Danielle and that Maria had risked her life not once but twice to ensure his daughter's safety. Even the head of the Cordoba household had risked her family's reputation so that Danielle could find happiness. Sure, she was also thinking of her own daughter, but from what Catherine had told him, this whole family cared for the princess — deeply. Why did Danielle have the ability to gain the respect and loyalty of people she'd just met?

The king dropped his head as a tear found its way to his eye. He rarely let his emotions out, but the realization of how special his youngest daughter was caused an unfamiliar reaction in him. Everything told him that he should be angry, even appalled, by the attraction that Danielle felt for the Spanish woman. Yet all he could see was that the purity of Danielle's nature was what people were drawn to and captured by. Although he'd never told her, Louis loved her dearly.

“Louis,” Catherine asked. “What are you thinking?”

“I'm still trying to come to terms with all of this,” Louis said, turning to once again face his wife. “I wanted Danielle to marry into this family because I knew it would be good for our interests in Spain, but now I'm wondering if it would really take a marriage to ensure that. Hasn't this family already proven their commitment to the alliance between our countries by fighting to stop the resistance in Spain and by protecting our family without regard to their own safety?”

Catherine nodded her head yes, and let out a long breath.

Louis walked over and sat next to his wife, placing his arm around her. “It seems my daughter has taught me yet another lesson. All these years I thought that it was a strong hand that commanded respect and here this young woman, our daughter, has taught me that loyalty and respect can come from something as simple as a pure soul and honest heart.”

“What are you saying, my love?”

“I'm not sure, Cherie.” Louis said, kissing the warm cheek of his wife. “I can't very well let my daughter stay here unmarried. That is unthinkable.”

“So then you'll have her return with us to France?” Catherine asked, sadly.

“From all that you've told me,” Louis said, “that might be the one thing that would forever break her spirit and her heart. If Danielle has found the single source of eternal love, I can't make her give that up. I love her, Catherine. I must be getting soft in my old age, but I can't be responsible for causing her light to be extinguished.”

Catherine turned and kissed Louis, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck. “You have reminded me of why I fell in love with you. Even though you rarely show this side of you anymore, I always know you're capable of great compassion and love.”

“Hmm, yes, well . . .” Louis stammered. “Don't you dare tell anyone else.”

“Your secret is safe with me, my love.” Catherine kissed him again, but this time more deliberately, making sure that Louis felt the passion she still had for him.

After a while, Louis slowly pulled away from the embrace. He looked at his wife and smiled. “It seems you've become quite good with secrets.”

Catherine blushed and smiled back. “Only when I need to protect the people I love.”

“Well, my Queen, since you've become so good at this, please tell me what on earth we can do about this situation?” Louis stood.

Catherine sat still, placing her hands to her mouth and closed her eyes. She was so happy that Louis was at least willing to entertain the idea of letting Danielle remain with Maria. Now all she had to do was think up a new plan and do it fast.

Maria watched as Danielle's sobs finally stopped. The young woman had fallen asleep in her arms, safe from the rest of the world around them. Unsure of what to do at this point, Maria did something she rarely did — she prayed.

“I have never asked for a thing for myself, Lord. I haven't always followed your path, but if you allow this woman that I now hold to stay in my life, I promise to try. She's the one thing that I'm not sure I could live without. All I can say is that she inspires me to be a better person. I need her and she needs me. I pray, Lord, let us be together.”

Maria held Danielle closer and kissed her forehead, tenderly.

Rosa paced back and forth across the floor, wringing her hands and trying to bring her thoughts to rest. Everything about this situation was growing increasingly risky and for her family, there was a real possibility that they could suffer hardships brought on by an angry king.

“They've been in there a long time.” Rosa stopped walking to address the captain.

“It just seems that way to us,” Luc commented.

“Yes, it does,” Fredrick said. “Do you think it's a good or bad sign that they're still talking?”

“I think the indication that it could be good is that there's been no yelling or things being thrown about the room,” Luc said. “I've seen the king's temper get the best of him at times, especially when Catherine's been meddling.”

“Has she ever done anything this deceitful?” Rosa asked.

“Umm . . . no, this pretty much tops anything she's ever tried before,” Luc said, squinting his eyes.

“Oh, that makes me feel much better,” Rosa said sarcastically.

Catherine lifted her head from her hands and stared across the room. She was trying to think of a way that Danielle could remain in Spain without causing shame or talk about their family, but so far she was at a loss. It was far too late to try and fake her daughter's death, as many of the French soldiers had now seen her firsthand and witnessed her fainting spell.

Looking over at her husband, who was leaning against a large bookcase that housed the doctor's medical books, Catherine suddenly had a thought. She stood up and walked to his side. Without saying a word, she scanned the books and then pulled one out, turned the pages, and began to read.

“Excuse me, my dear,” Louis said, laughing. “I didn't realize that you were also a doctor. What else haven't you told me?”

“Remember how you said you were worried about Danielle?” Catherine asked, continuing to read and ignoring his humor. “You know, when you first walked in and she looked pale and then fainted?”


“Well, the soldiers saw that too, before you dismissed them outside, that is,” Catherine continued. “They must be wondering about that.”

“Go on.”

“What if there was something wrong with her?” Catherine asked slyly. “What if she developed a sickness that was causing her weakness and prevented her from travelling back to France? What if she contracted . . . say smallpox, for instance?”

“Smallpox?” Louis asked, alarmed. “Catherine, that can be very deadly and very contagious.”

“That's true,” Catherine said. “However, according to this journal, smallpox starts as a fever that can make you very weak and then soon after, small red bumps appear everywhere. It can cause death, that is true, but it can also leave people disfigured and disabled.”

“What are you getting at?” Louis looked directly into his wife's eyes.

“Louis,” Catherine began, “If Danielle had smallpox she would naturally have to stay here to be treated. We, of course, would need to get back to the affairs of France. Because smallpox is so contagious, we would be forced to leave her here to quarantine her from contact with others. The recovery process can be very long and if, for instance, she was left crippled or incapacitated by some means, she could possibly never be strong enough to make the trip back to France.”

“I see,” Louis said. “And the generosity shown by the Cordobas to care for our sick and crippled daughter would also appear to others to show that our allegiance with Spain is firmly rooted and that both countries hold high esteem for each other.”

“Yes,” Catherine said. “The Cordobas are a wonderful and caring family and our faith in leaving Danielle with them would only prove to the people back in France that Spain is our ally. Plus, at the invitation of our friends in Spain, we could visit our poor daughter whenever we liked.”

“I only see one problem with this,” Louis said.

“And what's that?”

“Danielle would eventually have to leave the Cordoba villa, don't you think? I mean, even if she did remain in Spain permanently, she'd go crazy if she didn't get out once in a while,” Louis said sympathetically.

“I do see your point,” Catherine said. “But somehow I think our daughter could conjure up a pretty convincing limp that would fool people if necessary or pretend to be tired and out of breath or weak even. She's quite the actress, you know. I'm sure she wouldn't mind leaning on Maria for support when they were out in public, either.”

“Very funny,” Louis said, grabbing his wife, lifting her off the ground and twirling her around in circles.

“Put me down,” Catherine laughed.

“Now,” Louis said in between spins, “I know exactly where Danielle got all her imagination and creativity from. Like mother like daughter.”

“Does this mean you'll agree to this?” Catherine asked as Louis placed her back on the floor.

“It sounds perfect to me,” he said and stepped closer, kissing his wife firmly on the lips.

“I love you,” Catherine sighed as she pulled slowly away. “I know Rosa and Fredrick will agree to this, I mean they were going to fake her death, for heaven's sake. And I'm sure the doctor won't mind verifying Danielle's disease, so all we have to do is tell Danielle that she'll have to lay low here for awhile and pretend to be sick.”

“I think it would only be right that to have Luc stay here for a time with her,” Louis contemplated as he ran his fingers along the side of his chin. “It will look better that we've left our best man with the princess. Eventually, after time has passed, he can return with an update on Danielle's progress, and that should serve to convince the people of just how serious her health problem is. We will need to leave a handful of scouts also. They will be our messengers with reports from the doctor.”

“I suppose you're right about Luc,” Catherine said. “He'll probably think he's being punished by being forced to stay behind, though.”

“Remember who he is, My Queen,” Louis said. “He's a captain who was planning on lying to his king. He knows if I'd truly wanted to punish him, I'd have his head for that. Plus, it is his sworn duty to protect Danielle and I doubt he himself would have it any other way.”

“You're right,” Catherine hugged the king once more. “Let's go tell our daughter how sick she looks.”

The door swung open and three sets of eyes stared at the royal couple existing the room. Luc swallowed hard and held his breath.

“Captain, where is Danielle?” Louis asked.

“She's upstairs, Your Highness,” Luc said, standing to attention.

“I'll get her, she's with Maria.” Rosa offered.

“That's quite all right,” Louis said. “We'd like to talk to them both for just a minute. I would ask all of you to remain here and please bring the doctor to the parlor. We'd like to a have a word with you when we're done talking to Danielle and Maria.”

“Certainly, Your Highness,” Rosa said, curtsying.

Louis put his hand on this wife's waist and began to escort her up the stairs. Before the queen left the room, she turned and winked at Rosa.

Danielle stirred, blinking her eyes, as she became aware of the strong arm holding her. She was so exhausted but even in her worried state she felt safe enough in Maria's arms to doze off.

“Hello,” Maria whispered. “How are you feeling?”

“She's feeling very ill,” Catherine said, walking into the room, the king stood directly behind her.

“Mother, Father.” Danielle struggled to wake up and remove herself from Maria's grasp.

“Relax, daughter,” Louis said, stepping around his wife. “I know everything, and according to your mother, there is no safer place for you than next to this brave woman.”

“Your Majesty,” Maria bowed her head. “It's an honor.”

“The pleasure is all mine and I must first thank you for risking your life to save my daughter,” Louis said. “Catherine tells me you've been seriously injured. How are you feeling?”

“I'm better, Your Majesty,” Maria said. “Thank you for inquiring. The doctor tells me I'll recover from my injury. It will only be a matter of time and I'll be as good as new.”

“We're both glad to hear that,” Louis said.

“I've told your father everything, Danielle. I left nothing out.” Catherine took a deep breath as she spoke.

“Father, I love Ma . . .,” Danielle stood up and tried to speak but was abruptly stopped.

“No, you don't have to say a word,” the King said. “I believe I understand what you feel and your mother and I have agreed that you two should be together, but it must be done in a way that will not cause talk. Your mother will explain it to you both and you will have to agree to every detail. It won't be easy, Danielle, but at least is gives us the option of seeing you again and gives you the opportunity to remain in Spain with Maria.”

Danielle sat down on the bed next to Maria and held her hand. Obviously her father had by some miracle listened to her mother and found it in his heart to grant her the happiness that she knew could only be found with this Spanish woman. She was speechless for maybe the first time in her life. She sat motionless as her mother related the details of the disease smallpox and the plans that had just been laid out moments earlier with her father.

Tears began to form in her eyes as she realized how much her parents loved her. To have this chance was all she'd ever dreamt of and whatever was necessary to make it appear that she was sick was a small price to pay. She nodded her approval to her parents and unable to speak, turned toward Maria, tightening her grip on the tall women's hand.

“Your Majesties,” Maria said. “I now know that it is because of the love that you have shown Danielle throughout her life that she can so freely give of herself to others. I am but the luckiest woman alive to know how it feels to be loved by her. I dedicate my life to your daughter and I thank you for giving us this chance. She is safe here and always will be for as long as she wishes to stay.”

“That was the precise answer I was hoping for,” Catherine said, crying tears of joy and walking over to embrace her daughter.

Danielle's tears also began to fall freely as she hugged her mother. Resting her head on her mother's shoulder, her gaze fell upon her stoic father, who appeared to be struggling to fight back his own emotions. Danielle walked over to him and threw her arms around his neck, standing on her tiptoes as she kissed his cheek. They had never been ones to display signs of affection and even though she knew her father would feel awkward, she didn't hesitate to hug him tighter.

“I love you, Father,” Danielle whispered into his ear. She went to step away and felt her father's arms embrace her.

“And I you, my daughter,” Louis whispered back.

The next hour was spent hurrying to put everything into place. The doctor agreed to house Danielle in a private room on the second floor of a guest villa that was some 100 yards from the main building, which he needed to keep in operation as his main treatment area. It was agreed that Luc would remain on the first floor to watch and look after Danielle's safety. Fredrick and Luc worked to put the quarters in order as the doctor made the announcement of the outbreak of smallpox.

Everyone was ordered away from the building upon the doctor's declaration. Danielle was forced to say her good-bye to her parents. She could have no further contact with anyone except for the doctor to make the illusion seem real. She promised to write and her mother pledged the same. The king and queen stayed with Danielle for as long as possible and then exited the villa with Rosa.

The time had come for Maria and Cora to be moved back to the Cordoba villa and Danielle entered her room to say good-bye. She found Maria sitting on the edge of the bed. She had managed to get her pants on and was now struggling to button her shirt.

“Let me help you,” Danielle walked over and knelt down. Gently, she replaced Maria's hands with her own. “I'm going to miss you while we go through this quarantine phase, but I'll keep remembering that it's you that waits for me and that will make me strong.”

“I don't like the idea of you being here with me laid up so far away,” Maria said as she allowed the princess to help her dress. “I'm feeling kind of helpless right now and I hate that feeling.”

“Luc will be with me,” Danielle said. “I'll be fine. It's you that I worry about. You must promise me that you won't try to overdo it. You're just starting to heal.”

“I promise,” Maria said and placed her hand over Danielle's. With her other hand she lifted Danielle's chin and looked into her eyes. “You can't under any circumstances go out of that building. You know that, right?”

“Yes,” Danielle said. “I won't take any chances, especially since I know what I'd be jeopardizing. When we get through this, I'll be able to move into the villa with you. What's a fortnight or two when I know we'll have the rest of our lives together?”

“I love you,” Maria said, then kissed Danielle softly on the lips. She felt Danielle's tongue slip out and without hesitation she opened her mouth to allow the young woman more access to explore. She moaned as she tasted the sweetness that was only the princess. They kissed each other with an intensity that both knew would have to carry them over until they could once again be in each other's arms.

“Excuse me,” Luc knocked on the door. “It's time, Maria. We need to move you.”

“Yes, of course, Captain,” Maria leaned back and allowed Luc to wrap his arm around her waist. He supported her as she stood.

“You take care of her,” Maria said softly to Luc. “Don't let her out of your sight.”

“She's as safe with me as she would be with you,” Luc replied.

Fredrick appeared and the two of them gingerly escorted Maria to the door.

Maria hesitated before she left and had the men face her back to Danielle. “I'll see you soon.”

“Not soon enough for me,” Danielle smiled and winked at the Spanish woman. “Take good care of yourself, Maria.”

“I'll be back to get Cora as soon as we have Maria secured,” Fredrick said.

“I'll be right here with her,” Danielle sat down on the bed next to the dog, petting her head. “I think I might miss you most of all, little one.”

Cora wagged her tail and then slowly rolled over to expose her soft belly.

“You like your belly scratched, do you?” Danielle chuckled. “You're the cutest thing in the world, Miss Cora, and I think you're beginning to feel much better. You take extra special care of Maria for me, you hear? She'll need lots of attention while I'm gone and if anyone so much as comes within six feet of her that you don't like, you've got my permission to bite them hard.”

Cora let out a little bark and Danielle laughed. “That's right, I said bite them hard.”

The king and queen and the French army went back to the Cordoba villa along with Rosa, Fredrick, and Maria. There they would talk about Danielle's safety and the plans for her recovery. Danielle's parents would stay a couple of days to rest and then head back to France. If everything worked as planned, Danielle would remain quarantined for at least a fortnight and the doctor would supply the Cordoba villa with fake progress reports. These reports would be forwarded to the king as the entourage made its way back to France. Of course, in the end the report would claim that the princess was hit most hard by the smallpox infection and would never fully recover. The best option would be for her to remain in Spain.

Luc returned and after much protesting from the princess, carried her over to the guest villa. Dr. Sanar reminded Danielle that they couldn't be too careful. The doctor followed and remained inside for some time. He explained what smallpox could do and the treatments that the princess would have had. He also informed her of the recovery period and made her promise not to leave the guest villa until enough time had passed. He would be the one to make that judgement, and until that time she would need to be kept under wraps.

Three weeks into the seclusion, Danielle was fighting the boredom but losing the battle. The windows and curtains were drawn when she was up moving about the room and the only time she was allowed to see the sun was when she was lying down. Books were brought to her but she had gone through those fairly quickly. If not for Luc, she would surely have gone crazy by now. They talked about everything, and the love she felt for this man grew even stronger. He was once again her savior.

Luc taught her the game of chess and unfortunately for him, she was now regularly beating the captain in this own game. She had also convinced him that she needed to be taught how to handle a sword, and because they both needed the exercise, he agreed to teach her the basic maneuvers. To his surprise, she was quickly becoming very good. No one but the doctor was allowed to visit, and as much as Danielle wanted to see Maria, she knew they couldn't risk it. Only one more week and she was certain that at the very least the doctor would allow a visit.

The one thing Danielle looked forward to was the daily update from the Cordoba villa that was supplied by the doctor. Maria was doing very well and had, for the first time since being shot, ridden her horse without any assistance the previous day. He said that she was basically back to normal. Danielle missed her terribly.

Early one morning, Luc and Danielle were playing chess when they heard a scratching noise. Luc drew his pistol as the princess hid behind the large desk. The captain slowly cracked the door and looked out. Cora sat before him - a rose in her mouth with a letter rolled tightly around the stem. He chuckled and let her in.

“A message for the princess, I presume,” Luc laughed.

“Little one,” Danielle said and sat down on the floor to greet Cora. “I've missed you. What do you have for me?”

The Springer Spaniel trotted to the princess and dropped the rose into her hands. She reached up and placed a wet dog kiss across Danielle's cheek.

“Thank you,” Danielle said, petting Cora vigorously, which in turn resulted in another kiss.

Danielle smelled the rose and then untied the ribbon holding the letter in place. It read:

While I continue to become stronger every day I am left weak in the heart from our separation. Remember when you asked me if I'd dreamt of you? I have for years. I dream of you every night just as I have since I was no more than ten. The difference now is that I've experienced your sweet kiss and laid eyes upon your beautiful face and it makes my dreams all that more real. I'm counting the days until I can hold you in my arms once more. Tell me, my love, what visions keep you going? What do you wish for when we're together again?

Yours Always,

Danielle smiled and held the letter to her heart.

“Luc, we do have paper and pen, right?” she inquired.

Luc went into the desk and retrieved the items.

Danielle took the piece of stationary and dipped her pen in the ink well, then began to write.

So many visions keep me going. I knew the moment I saw you in the garden and you took my hand to help me up that ours was not simply a chance meeting, for it was your eyes I had memorized from my dreams as well. The night I watched you perform the Tango with that dancer in your arms, I wished for it to be me. I wanted it to be me. The way your hand rested on the small of her back, your cheeks so close to one another and the way you pulled her closer and she wrapped her leg around you . . . oh, Maria, I want to dance with you like that. Tell me we will some day.

I love you,

She blew on the paper to help dry it more quickly and then rolled the letter closed. Using the same ribbon that Maria used, she tied it together.

“Here you go, little one,” Danielle said, presenting the letter to the dog. “Take this back to Maria and remember to give her a kiss from me.”

Cora wagged her tail and opened her mouth, gladly accepting the parchment. She trotted back to the door and Luc opened it enough to allow her to exit. She bounded out into the yard.

“Luc,” Danielle said “Go to the window and see if you see Maria out there. Please, for me.”

Luc gladly obeyed the princess and watched as Cora ran directly to Maria, who stood next to her horse some 60 yards away.

“Is she there?” Danielle inquired.

“She is.”

“How does she look?”

“The same as the first day she came to our aid when were attacked – striking as always.”

Danielle blushed and covered her face with her hands. Luc laughed and then turned back to watch Maria.

“Did she get the letter, Luc?”

“She did and Cora did exactly as you instructed her. She's reading it now, Princess.”

“Oh, Luc. I miss her so.”

The captain closed the drapes to allow Maria to read the love letter in private.

Four more days passed and each brought with it another exchange of letters from the two women. Luc could tell that Danielle was close to her breaking point and allowed her to sit next to the window so that she could see Maria from a distance. He quickly closed the curtains and made sure they were not seen.

The next morning, Luc was outside as Maria rode up. Even they could not come near each other. As the doctor instructed, Luc was to be considered as a big a threat as Danielle for potentially spreading the disease. He waved at the Spanish woman and she motioned to him to wait. Maria handed Cora a note and she ran to the captain with it. Luc took the message and petted Cora on the head. He read the writing and then quickly tucked the paper into his shirt.

Cora ran back to Maria and returned again, with a rose and a letter for Danielle as had become the regular occurrence each day now. Luc took that message inside and waited for Danielle's reply.

That night as usual the doctor came and delivered their meal. He gave them a report about Rosa and her family, then stood to leave.

"Doctor," Danielle said. "When might I be able to have visitors? It's been so long now, aren't we close to the time that smallpox would no longer be contagious?"

"You've been remarkably patient, Princess," Dr. Sanar said. "I know this has been hard, but I think if you can wait just a couple more days, we can allow visitation. I've told everyone that you will recover but that it's too early still to tell what the permanent damage will be. I've said that you've been left very weak from this disease. We'll have to discuss that soon, before you ever leave this building."

"I understand," Danielle said. "I can be very convincing, you know."

"That's an understatement," Luc chuckled.

"Very funny." Danielle poked him in the ribs and he yelped.

"I'll be by in the morning," Dr. Sanar said and left for the evening.

They ate their dinner as usual but instead of their nightly game of chess, Luc said he was tired and wanted to turn in early. The princess took a book to read for the second time and headed up the stairs.

Danielle didn't remember dozing off but as she slowly woke up, she swore she heard music. She blinked her eyes and removed the book from her lap. She could hear the guitars even though the window was closed and the curtains were drawn. The song was the one she had heard many nights ago at her welcoming dinner to Spain. The memory made her ache and think of Maria.

A knocking at her door startled her. She quickly crossed the room and opened it thinking the captain was probably wondering about the music just as she was.

"Lovely evening, isn't it?" Maria smiled. "I was hoping we might share that dance tonight."

"Oh, Maria," Danielle threw her arms around her and hugged her tight. "I've missed you so much."

"I couldn't wait any longer to see you," Maria said, stepping inside and closing the door. "The doctor will tell you tomorrow morning, but he told everyone today that you're allowed visitors now. I told Dr. Sanar and Luc that I had arranged some music for you this evening to help with your boredom, but only Luc knew that I was sneaking in before the musicians got here. No one knows that I'm here besides the captain and you."

Danielle watched as Maria turned the wick down very low in the lamp and then walked to the window and opened it. She kept the curtains drawn but the night breeze filtered through and the music from the guitar strings filled the room.

"It sounds wonderful," Danielle sighed. "Thank you, Maria."

"I know it's been hard for you cooped up in here. Only a little while longer and we'll have you back at the villa," Maria said. "Until then, I plan on being here as much as possible. I hope that's all right with you?"

"More than all right," Danielle said. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Maria leaned down and kissed Danielle. The princess wrapped her arms around the tall woman's waist and held her while they lingered together, kissing each other slowly and deliberately, their mouths exploring and reacquainting themselves. Gone was the urgency from before. They both knew that they'd be together each day going forward for the rest of their lives.

"I don't ever want to be away from you again, Danielle," Maria said.

"I missed your voice," Danielle said. "I'd be happy for the rest of my life if I could just hear you call my name every day. I remember the first time you said it. In the garden the first day I met you, and nothing has ever or will ever sound sweeter to me."

"Danielle," Maria kissed her lightly again and then whispered into her ear. "Danielle . . . I love saying your name."

The princess kissed her again and hugged her tight.

"Let's not let this music go to waste, shall we? I believe you wanted to dance with me," Maria said.

"I don't know how to tango," Danielle said timidly.

"This will be our first lesson," Maria said, taking Danielle's hand.

She showed the princess where to place her hands and how to follow her steps and told her to look into her eyes and relax. The guitars continued to play and slowly Danielle loosened up, allowing Maria to lead her around the room. They started to move together more fluidly. She was finally in Maria's arms and nothing felt more right, more perfect than this. The tall woman held her closer and she closed her eyes, lost in the sensation of Maria's body against hers and the tones of the passionate music. Maria stepped into her with the beat of the song and pulled her against her chest. Danielle felt the Spanish women's thigh press against her center, which left her instantly wet and weak in the knees. The music stopped and when she opened her eyes she was staring into the beautiful blue orbs of the woman she loved.

"It was exactly how I dreamt it would be," Danielle said softly.

"You feel so good, Danielle," Maria sighed. "I missed you so. I love you."

Maria searched the face of the woman in her arms. She'd never felt more loved or wanted by anyone. Neither one moved when the guitars began playing another song; they just continued to stare, as the passion between them grew stronger. They both felt it and saw it in each other's eyes.

"Make love to me, Maria," Danielle whispered. "I've thought of nothing else since the first day you kissed me."

"Are you sure you're ready for this tonight?" Maria asked, slowly.

"I've never been more ready for anything." Danielle drew in a long breath. "I've waited all my life for you. Please, Maria. I love you."

Maria's mouth moved to the side of Danielle's neck and she slowly kissed her way tenderly up and down. She brushed back the long golden hair to expose the earlobe that she wanted to kiss. Danielle moaned as the Spanish woman sucked on the soft flesh. She felt the hot breath in her ear and it aroused her even more, causing her legs to give out slightly. Her breathing became ragged.

Maria swept Danielle up into her arms and carried her to the bed. She gently lay her onto the sheets as she kissed her lips. Her hands moved to the laces holding Danielle's dress in place and slowly she loosened them. She kissed her way down along her neck and then trailed her way to the hollow between her breasts, pausing as she watched Danielle's creamy skin pulse as her heart beat faster.

"You're so beautiful, Danielle."

Maria moved the cloth of Danielle's dress back to expose her breast, watching as her nipple rose and hardened as the breeze from the window danced across it. Maria gently sucked and licked it and the princess arched up into her mouth. Maria heard soft moans of pleasure and continued to pay special attention to the sensitive flesh.

"That feels wonderful," Danielle sighed.

Maria gently pulled open Danielle's dress and lifted her to free the garment from her arms. Before she could lay the princess back down, Danielle's fingers begun to undo the white silk shirt that the Spanish woman wore.

"I want to feel your skin against mine," Danielle said as she slowly unbuttoned the fabric and pushed the shirt down over Maria's shoulders and tossed it to the ground. She put her arms around the Spanish woman and pulled her down on top of her so that Maria's warm soft breasts were against her own. "God, you feel so good."

Maria kissed her again more intensely and moved along the body underneath her until she had her thigh in between Danielle's legs. She pressed down into the princess, feeling her legs widen to accept the contact. The small hips below her moved into her and it caused her breath to catch as she felt her own wetness grow. Their kiss deepened as their hips moved together, rhythmically, almost in time with the music still playing outside. Maria felt Danielle's hand move to her back and pull her closer.

"Maria," Danielle whispered. "I want to feel all of you, can we please get rid of these clothes?"

Maria stopped worrying that Danielle might need to take things slower. She smiled at the princess and kissed her again. "Of course we can."

She gently stood up and took the French woman's hand to help her up. They both removed their clothing and when Maria turned back around, Danielle lay completely naked before her on the bed. Her passion-filled eyes sparkled in the low light.

"You're so beautiful, Princess. You could never be more beautiful than you are to me right now."

"Come here," Danielle sighed, reaching out her hand to welcome her lover back to the bed.

Maria wrapped her fingers into the smaller ones calling for her and Danielle pulled her down into another kiss. Their breasts melted together as their hips snuggled into one another; two bodies together in perfect harmony. They stayed that way for some time with their mouths and tongues lost in each other as their bodies slid passionately along love's sweet dew.

"I love you, Danielle."

Maria moved just to the side of the princess so that she could run her hand along the silky, glistening skin. Her hand traveled slowly over the generous curve of Danielle's firm breast. Looking down, she saw the princess's stomach trembling in anticipation. She continued her exploration across the taut muscles and brushed her fingertips along golden curls. Danielle moaned and brought her hand to Maria's breast, cupping it and kneading the dark flesh as their lips came back together momentarily.

"Touch me, Maria, please."

Maria moved her hand slowly down until she could feel moisture and then she ran her fingers along the soft wet folds, slowly and lovingly, back and forth as Danielle sighed. The moans of the princess increased and she threw her head back against the pillow, lost in the sensations that Maria was causing in her body. Maria watched the princess dig her heels into the bed as she arched up into the touches. Letting two fingers slip through the wetness again, she pushed them into the soft center. Danielle groaned and called Maria's name.

Lost in the passion of the moment Maria kissed her way down the warm body, never removing her fingers from inside her lover. She eased her mouth down to capture the private, tender flesh and used her tongue to slowly tease the swollen, excited nub. She inhaled the sweet fragrance and pulled Danielle up into her, gently sucking while the fingers of her other hand moved slowly in and out of the silky center.

"Maria, Maria," Danielle called out her need, breathless. "Maria."

The Spanish woman quickened the pace of her fingers slightly as she felt Danielle's pleasure building to a climax and as she swirled her tongue into the softness, Maria felt the quivering and release of her orgasm as the princess called her name again.

Maria pulled herself back up and embraced Danielle, holding her until her trembling eased and her breathing returned to a more normal rhythm. A silent bliss fell over them as they held each other tight. Danielle snuggled her face deep into Maria's neck and sighed.

"I still can't believe that my dreams have come true," Danielle said softly. "Your love, your touch . . . it's all I will ever need."

"Nothing has ever felt more right than when you're in my arms." Maria squeezed the princess tighter. "My heart feels whole."

"Does that mean we can stay like this forever?" Danielle smiled and moved out from the Spanish woman's embrace to crawl on top of her. "I could see myself right here for a very long time."

"Is that so?" Maria whispered and wrapped her arms around the small waist. "I think we might need to get up once in a while."

"You know how the doctor said that I should appear exhausted and weak?"

"Yes," Maria smirked.

"I think I just decided exactly how I'd like to accomplish that," Danielle said. She slowly began to kiss Maria and explore the other woman's body with her hands. It wasn't long before Maria realized that Danielle wasn't just a quick study with the tango. They loved each other, passionately and completely, throughout the night.

Before the light of morning, Danielle held Maria close and said a silent thank you for her answered prayers. Nothing could ever be better than being in her dreams and being wide awake.

As was intended by some force, uninvited but not unwelcome and stronger than the both of them, their souls finally became one, united forever.

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