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The King's Consort

 

Author's Note:

 

This is a work of fiction based on the life and loves of Louise Rasmussen, Countess Danner. Years ago my mother told me the tale Louise, having heard from a now deceased relative in Denmark that our branch of the Rasmussen family may be related to her. To date I have not undertaken the necessary steps to investigate this claim, since I became enraptured of telling Louise's story and have spent the last two years writing, researching, and getting this novel published. With my mother's help, and that of family members still living in Denmark, I hope to prove, or disprove, our relation to the Countess Danner. Of one thing I am certain; whichever turns out to be the truth, my considerable respect for this much-maligned lady will remain.

 

Although a fiction novel, please note that many of the characters and events of the time were real, and many places noted herein still exist today. However, the author may have changed some personal characteristics and/or specifics relating to dialogue and historical events to facilitate the telling of this story. As such, neither I, as the author, nor the publisher assume liability for errors or omissions that may have occurred within this work. The intent of the story is purely for entertainment purposes and is in no way intended to replace factual, historical writings on any of the characters, places, or events introduced in this story.

 

Dedication

 

To my mother, Beckey Jackson, for motivating me to tell this story. Without you, this book would not have been possible.

 

The divide between the dream and the dreamer is measured in beats of a heart. For a young girl on the verge of womanhood, it is the most difficult lesson of all to learn.

 

Debbie A. McClure

 

Chapter One

Copenhagen, Denmark, 1830

 

 

Hold. Hold. Hold. No! No, dammit!

Fifteen year old Louise Rasmussen dropped to the weathered floorboards, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps. She'd struggled to maintain the position of First Arabesque for as long as she could; willing her supporting leg to stop quaking beneath her. Betrayed by the weak limb, she now lay in an ignominious heap. Mortified, she bit her lower lip to stem the tears that threatened to spill over, keeping her head down for a moment. Cautiously, she looked up to see the sneering face of her nemesis, Johanne Pätges. Johanne never missed an opportunity to make her life hell, so she’d crow about this defeat at the first opportunity.

Scanning the faces that turned to stare, her gaze was caught and held by Margarethe, the pride and joy of the entire dance company. Her eyes steady on Louise's face, she offered a small smile of encouragement. Margarethe was an inspiration to everyone, and Louise was completely in awe of her incredible talent. More impressive still was Margarethe's kindness to everyone in the cut-throat world of professional ballet. To Louise, Margarethe was a magnificent blonde angel whose inner beauty was reflected in her outer countenance. As the two regarded each other, Louise felt infused with a thread of reassurance she desperately needed.

Fortified, she swung her head toward the stern face of the new choreographer, August Bournonville. Bournonville was a fair yet hard task-master, but it was his patrician good-looks that set many a female's heart to dancing, Louise's included. She’d been determined to stand out and have him notice her, but not like this! Not sprawled on the stage like a broken doll, her legs bent painfully beneath her.

“Rise up, Miss Rasmussen,” he commanded, his tone laden with cool disdain.

Eager to avoid further censure, she scrambled to comply.

“Stop!”

Ceasing all movement, she looked with confusion at the man she adored. I don’t understand. I’m doing what he asked, aren’t I? What am I doing wrong?

His voice gentled. “I said, rise up.”

Unsure what do next, she hesitated. Hadn’t she been doing just that?

Tucking his hands behind his back, Bournonville began to pace in long strides in front of the stage. “Are you an awkward duckling, or a graceful swan?” he asked with deceptive equanimity. “A duckling has no control over its wings and body.”

Abruptly he stopped and faced her, his deep blue eyes pinning her in place. “It is clumsy and ungainly in its movements. But a swan, well, a swan is beauty and elegance incarnate. No matter what is happening beneath the surface of the water, she appears to glide effortlessly. When the swan lifts her wings to take flight, she caresses the air and epitomizes grace.”

With one long fingered hand outstretched as if to touch the imagined bird, his expression took on a dreamy quality. A beat of silence followed his words.

“She does not flap about,” he spat out, his gaze snapping back to fasten on Louise's half-crouched form.

Drawing in a deep breath, the choreographer continued. “A ballerina is a swan, and even if she falls, she rises with controlled, beautiful movements that leave the viewer believing it was all part of the dance. You must decide whether you are the duckling, or the swan.”

Heat suffused Louise’s face, but her mind caught and held the image of the beautiful white bird. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on unfurling her limbs, forcing her still shaking legs to lift her up with slow deliberation, her movements graceful and fluid. Envisioning herself rising from the surface of a still lake, she balanced on the toe of one foot, her arms outstretched before her in a perfect Arabesque. Opening her eyes, she gauged the choreographer’s reaction. Although Bournonville’s face was impassive, she noted the sliver of approval in his eyes and felt a quiver of triumph.

“Better,” he said. Turning to address the rest of the dancers he instructed, “Take a break. We will resume in exactly twenty minutes.”

With an abrupt about-face, August Bournonville glided more than walked up the aisle between the rows of theatre seats.

A sigh of relief escaped Louise’s lips. Pleased at the small coup she’d achieved, she grinned and regained solid footing. The moment Bournonville turned the corner, Margarethe approached while the other the dancers began filing off the stage, some casting surreptitious glances her way.

“I knew you could do it! I was so proud of you, Louise.”

Louise couldn't stop grinning. “I wasn’t sure I could, but I think he was pleased.”

“Bournonville isn't easily impressed, but yes, I believe he was very pleased. He pushes us because he knows we can do better than we think we can.”

Just then Louise’s best friend, Marie Taglione, hurried forward and flung her arms around Louise’s neck in a rough hug. Accepting the unwavering support, she responded with a grateful squeeze in return.

“You were wonderful,” Marie gushed.

“Thank you. I was terrified though.” She didn’t mind admitting her fears to her two staunchest supporters.

“Bournonville terrifies me!” Marie said in a stage whisper.

Margarethe touched Louise’s arm. “I’ll see you later. I’m going to go lie down in my dressing room for a few moments. I’m not feeling my best.”

For the first time Louise noted the bead of sweat lining Margarethe’s upper lip and brow. “Are you all right?”

Flashing a quick smile, Margarethe nodded. “I’m fine. I think I might have eaten something that disagrees with me. A quick rest will do me good.”

Louise watched her friend leave, a tinge of concern prickling in her belly.

Marie called out a farewell, then looped her arm through Louise’s as she led the way off stage.

“Come on, I could use a bit of a rest too before Bournonville drills us into the ground again.”

Arm in arm they entered into the gaggle of laughing, chattering females that filled the small dressing room. Still stinging from embarrassment, Louise dropped Marie’s arm and threaded through the crush, keeping her head down while making her way toward her scarred old vanity desk at the far end of the room. The tall, stick-like figure of Johanne Pätges stepped in front of her to bar the way. She was a cruel praying mantis, and Louise hated her.

“How astute of Mr. Bournonville to recognize you for what you are. He’s absolutely right, you are an ugly little duckling flapping around on stage, embarrassing yourself and the rest of us with your ridiculous pirouettes and pliés.”

Marie stepped forward to flank Louise, a mutinous expression on her face. Louise laid a restraining hand on her arm. Preparing for battle, she glared at Johanne, her hands clenched into fists at her side.

Johanne didn’t flinch, her hard eyes reminding Louise of flat brown stones. “Of course, what can be expected of a poor little bastard child whose own father has no use for her?”

Shame bit hard. “Take it back,” Louise ground out, straining to leash her temper.

I hate her. She thinks she’s so much better than everyone else. Just once I’d like to show her what I think of her.

Johanne smirked. “What? The part about your ridiculous dancing, or the part about your father?”

Louise’s fingers flexed and un-flexed. “Both.”

“Why? You know I’m right. Besides, the only reason you’re training here at all is because your father wants to keep his place under your mother’s skirt by paying for your place here.”

Enough! I’m going to shut her up once and for all! With a bellow Louise launched forward, shoving Johanne toward an open cupboard filled to overflowing with numerous costumes. Toppling backward into the void, Johanne emitted a high-pitched squeal.

“She sounds like a little piglet,” Marie crowed, clapping her hands in delight.

Louise slammed the door shut, knowing full well it had a tendency to catch on the misshapen frame and become wedged. In a burst of satisfaction, she stuck her tongue out at the closed door.

Whirling around, she took in the shocked faces of the other girls who’d gathered to watch the drama play out. Marie’s face was split with a huge grin, her eyes dancing with mirth.

Embarrassed to be the object of censure for the second time that day and her display of temper, to the sound of Johanne’s screams of fury raging from within the closet, Louise bolted from the room. In her secret hideaway under the stairs in the basement, she trembled with an equal mixture of fear of reprisal and anger. Crouching in the welcome darkness with her knees drawn up, she rested her head against the bent limbs.

I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. Bournonville will definitely suspend me now. Everyone knows he doesn’t tolerate fighting and bickering. On the heels of that thought came another almost as frightening. Oh my God, my mother will be furious when she hears!

Inhaling deep, slow breaths, she blew them out again in an effort to regain some measure of composure. Johanne will make sure Bournonville hears about what I did, and then he’ll really think I’m a ridiculous little duckling. How am I going to impress him now?

In all honesty though, she couldn’t say she was sorry for what she’d done. A small smile curled her lips at the memory of the look on Johanne’s face when she flew backward. Bet she won’t bother me again.

When her bare arms and legs became chilled from sitting in the cool, dank basement, she decided enough time had passed. Her street clothes were still in the dressing room, but she hoped she could sneak up to get them and leave while everyone else was in rehearsal. She’d had enough humiliation for one day, thank you very much.

On reaching the main floor, she exhaled a sigh of relief at the sight of the long empty corridor. As she passed Margarethe’s private dressing room she glanced over and saw that the door was slightly ajar. A small movement from inside the room caught her eye and stopped her.

Margarethe was so supportive, I can't just walk past without checking to make sure she's all right. Chiding herself for being a fool and losing the opportunity to sneak away, she knocked lightly. When there was no reply, she pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Margarethe lay on the floor curled in a fetal position, her slim white arms wrapped around her midsection. Stunned, Louise stood rooted to the spot. Dark red blood spread in a widening pool on the floor beneath Margarethe's prone body, staining the white dance costume she still wore.

“Louise,” Margarethe whispered, reaching out bloodied fingers.

Shock and horror grounded Louise, her mouth agape. It took a second for her to react, then she rushed forward to drop beside Margarethe. Reaching out a shaking hand, she laid it on the girl’s arm. Dear God, please, please, please let her be all right. Her heart pounded in her chest.

Margarethe’s eyelids fluttered, but didn’t open. Unsure what to do next, Louise gently moved Margarethe onto her back. The room spun sickeningly and she thought she’d pass out at the sight of the gore covering the lower half of Margarethe’s dance costume. Oh no! Oh no, no, no! Her hand covered her mouth in an effort to stem the bile that threatened to erupt.

Truly terrified, she recoiled when the girl’s bloodied hand groped for hers once again. Realizing that she alone could help Margarethe, she gathered her courage and took the hand that now lay lax on the floor.

“I’m here,” she said. “What happened?” There were no obvious signs of injury, so she couldn’t understand where all the blood was coming from.

“Baby,” Margarethe breathed.

Cold terror struck anew. Oh Dear Lord, what has she done? When the hand she held went slack and still, Louise’s heart tripped and faltered.

“Margarethe? Margarethe!”

There was no response. Withdrawing her hand, she stared down at the bright red streaks of blood clinging to her skin. Her stomach threatened to revolt once again. Wiping her hand on the skirt of her costume, she panicked. Scrambling to her feet she backed away, her brain reeling. She can’t be dead. She can’t be. Margarethe lay stone still.

Frantic, she shouted, “Help! Help!”

Unable to tear her eyes from the sight before her, she recognized the voice of one of the stage hands when he rushed into the room.

“Holy Mother Mary and Jesus,” he whispered.

Oh, thank God, she thought, relief flooding her entire body. I'm not alone. This man will know what to do for Margarethe.

Before she could explain what had happened, he grabbed her arm and dragged her out of the room, the slam of the door reverberating in her brain like a gun shot. Through the rushing in her ears, she heard the pounding of running feet as others came to investigate the ruckus.

Louise’s bloodied hand hung limp at her side while her brain tried to register what she’d just witnessed. The stage hand’s words tumbled over themselves as he recounted what he’d found to the gathering crowd. His voice pitched unnaturally high, his eyes continually skidded to the now closed door and silence beyond.

Everything’s going to be all right. Margarethe is going to be all right. She has to be.

She didn’t dare look at Margarethe’s door, for fear she’d be called upon to go back in there. Ice water sloshed in her veins while her brain spun disjointed thoughts, one upon the other. Why? Why did this have to happen to beautiful, laughing Margarethe? She said there is a baby. Where is the father? I think I'm going to be sick!

“There’s so much blood,” the man concluded with a deep shiver, bringing Louise out of her reverie. “She’s dead. It was this girl here’s shouts that brought me running.”

All eyes turned to Louise. Despite the overwhelming fear clouding her brain, she realized that no one had gone in to check on Margarethe. He was wrong. Margarethe was still alive! Refusing to believe the worst, she looked around at the shocked expressions on the faces staring back at her.

“She’s not dead!” Galvanized by fear, she implored, “Please, someone help her! She opened her eyes and said my name. I didn’t know what to do, so I started yelling for help.”

To her relief, an older woman stepped forward. “I’ll go in,” she said. Slipping into the room, she closed the door firmly behind her.

“What’s going on here?” Bournonville demanded, pushing through the group of curious onlookers.

The stage hand repeated his tale with much hand-wringing and wild eyes. When he was finished, Bournonville turned to Louise, his gaze dropping to her bloody hand. Unable to get the horrific scene out of her mind, she heard her own breathing wheezing in and out of her chest.

“It’s all right, Louise. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.” At the choreographer’s gentle encouragement, she inhaled deeply, gathered her wits, and haltingly explained.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she concluded, staring hard at his shoes.

Bournonville placed both hands on her shoulders, forcing her to look up into his ashen face. “You did the right thing. Now tell me, why is your hand covered in blood?”

Looking down, the image of Margarethe’s bloodied hand reaching out to her slammed into her brain. Clutching her stomach, she spun away to heave wretchedly.

When someone passed her a square of cloth, she wiped at her lips, the sour taste of bile thick and cloying in her throat.

Still shaking, she turned to face Bournonville. “She was all alone. I had to help her. I rolled her over onto her back, but there was blood everywhere. She held my hand for a minute, but then, Oh God, then she just went all still.”

Lifting her eyes to Bournonville she pleaded, “Tell me she’ll be okay. She will, won’t she?”

Bournonville heaved a sigh, his eyes sliding away for an instant before returning to face her. “You’ve had a difficult day, child. You must be terrified, but you did everything you could.”

Waving a hand in the direction of the crowd he beckoned Marie forward. “Marie will walk you home. The police will deal with this, this tragedy.”

Louise glanced once toward the ominous silence beyond Margarethe’s door, tears threatening to renew. She was glad when Marie immediately stepped forward and draped an arm over her shoulders and led her down the hallway toward the dressing room. Ugly images reeled over and over again in her mind’s eye.

She couldn’t stop the thoughts that wheeled and careened in her head. I should have done something more to help her. Maybe I shouldn’t have left her alone. Please God, don’t let her die!

Brushing back a lock of hair that fell in her eyes, she saw the dried blood streaking her fingers, palm, and back of her hand. Sickened, she turned into the water closet to rid herself of the blood. Wordlessly Marie followed her in and watched while Louise scrubbed her hands with the harsh soap until her skin was rubbed raw.

Finally reaching over, Marie laid a gentle hand on Louise’s arm to stop her. “It’s gone, Louise. Come on, let’s get you home.”

Although she could still feel the taint of Margarethe’s blood on her skin, she didn’t argue. Numb of all thought and feeling, on entering the dressing room she went straight to her desk and gathered her few things. It had been a lifetime since she’d confronted Johanne there. As they headed to the side exit door, she couldn’t help but note the groups of people gathered in clusters, whispering among themselves.

Passing three seamstresses, she heard someone say something about an “unwanted pregnancy”, while another whispered “disgraceful”. A chill raced up Louise’s spine. She had been unwanted, by her father at least. Did my mother think about getting rid of me?

Furious at the gossip's ignorance, she spun around to face them. “What’s disgraceful? Margarethe? I think you’re all disgraceful for talking about her while she lies dying!”

She’d heard stories of women who sought ways to end an ill-timed pregnancy and put their lives in the hands of unqualified midwives or uncaring doctors. It would explain why she hadn’t seen any signs of wounding or obvious harm on Margarethe’s poor body. Just blood. Lots, and lots of blood.

Even as a little girl she'd heard whispers about what some women did when faced with the dark secret of an unplanned pregnancy. While she knew that sometimes a forced termination worked, all too often it didn’t. Too many women died once they got home, or out on the streets. Husbands were left without wives, older children were left motherless, and young women died painful, bloody deaths, but nothing was ever done about it.

Looking at the shocked faces of the women, Louise felt slightly vindicated. Maybe next time they’ll think about what they say about others, but probably not. Mother always says that ignorance is as ignorance does.

Before they left the theatre, Louise stopped and asked Katrine, one of the older dancers, if Margarethe was going to be all right.

Katrine’s face was streaked with tears. “No. She’s gone,” she said, dabbing at her eyes with a small square of pink cloth embroidered with a bold K in one corner.

Stunned, Louise struggled to make sense of it all while Marie pulled her away and out into the brilliant sunshine. After the dim interior of the theatre, she blinked in the brilliant light several times to clear her vision. Margarethe is dead. I watched her die. How can it be so bright outside, when everything inside is so dark and horrible?

The two girls walked the next few blocks toward Louise’s home in silence. At the half-way point, Louise came to an abrupt halt, gripped by the need to be alone with her thoughts.

“I’m all right to go the rest of the way on my own. You might as well go home too.”

Marie looked closely at her, her eyes clouded with concern. “If you’re sure …”

She nodded in reassurance. “I’m sure. I just want to go home. I’m fine,” she lied.

Accepting Marie’s brief hug, she turned and began walking toward home. All the way she kept thinking about Margarethe, and about people like Johanne and the gossiping theatre ladies who blamed the women caught in the whirling vortex of fear and desperation when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, and the children living with the stigma of illegitimacy. Children like her, and women like her mother who were scorned, whispered about, and pointed at.

Opening the door to the tiny apartment she shared with her mother, she stood and looked around the dark room in confusion. Only now did she remember her mother saying that she’d been hired as a seamstress to make a new dress for one of the fancy ladies Louise envied.

Letting her things drop to the floor with a thud, she made her way to the lumpy sofa and sat down to stare blankly at the faded flowered wallpaper and await her mother’s return.

Tears tracked down her face. For the first time in her life she was truly scared about her own uncertain future. What happened to Margarethe’s dreams of fame and fortune? She was so kind and beautiful. She had such talent. Everyone was so sure she’d become a famous dancer one day. Now she’s dead. It’s all so horribly unfair.

Swiping angrily at the tears that continued to drip, she wished she’d been able to do more for her friend. I felt so helpless, but I didn't know what else to do.

Tipping her head back against the cushions, she squeezed her eyes shut. I refuse to end up like Margarethe, or like my mother. I refuse. No man is worth it.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Copenhagen, Denmark, Eleven Years Later

 

Her breaths sawing in and out of her chest in accompaniment to the rapid tattoo of her heart, Louise held her position. With a cascade of fabric, the curtain dropped abruptly, cutting her off from the audience she could still hear clapping and cheering. She never tired of the excitement and glamour of the performance, and even though her body ached in every possible way, she welcomed the high that only dancing before a live audience could bring.

Tonight was different though. Nervous excitement churned in her stomach for another reason, and the moment the curtain came down she quickly made her way off-stage. Amid the organized chaos of costumed dancers and stage hands, her toes tapping in agitation, she waited to move through the throng into the dressing room at the end of the narrow hallway. The moment she spied a break in the line, she surged forward, only to slam into a tall woman wearing an over-sized hat decorated with outrageous purple ostrich plumes.

“Look where you’re going!”

Cursing her luck she stopped and faced her old nemesis, Johanne Pätges, now Heiberg since her marriage a few years before, to the much older critic and dramatist, Johan Heiberg.

“Sorry. With the crush, I couldn’t help it.” Eager to avoid a confrontation, Louise hoped Johanne would accept her apology and move on. She wasn’t so fortunate.

Arms crossed under her small breasts, Johanne arched a brow. “What are you in such a hurry for, Little Duckling?”

Compressing her lips in a mutinous line at the other woman’s superior attitude and use of the hated nick-name she bit out, “It’s none of your business.”

Sneering down from her greater height, Johanne stood her ground, barring the way. Fed up with playing the childish cat and mouse game, Louise roughly shoved her way past without responding. She couldn’t help the zing of satisfaction at hearing Johanne’s inelegant “Oof”.

Intent on the target of her desk, she continued to thread her way through the female bodies in various states of undress, ignoring the warring smells of stale sweat and perfumes. On reaching her small scarred vanity table, she dropped into the chair and immediately began the process of removing the garish stage make-up.

“Well done tonight,” Marie said, throwing a quick glance her way as she took a seat at the adjoining table.

“You too,” Louise said with an acknowledging smile

Once all traces of the theatre were gone from her face, she stood to take off her costume. When Marie also stood and wordlessly turned her back to expose the lacing of her corset, Louise cinched it tightly, and then turned her own back to have the favor returned.

“Are you meeting Carl tonight?” Marie asked, watching as Louise stepped into a lovely green gown she pulled from the nearby standing rack.

“Yes, we’re going out to dinner.” Turning her back to Marie once again, she waited for her to do up the many tiny buttons that lined the dress from neck to waist. Placing a hand at her stomach, Louise inhaled, to ensure she could breathe comfortably enough within the confines of the corset.

The moment she turned around, Marie’s gaze sharpened. “Is something going on? You seem a little, I don’t know, jumpy tonight.”

Resuming her seat in front of the mirror, Louise avoided eye contact with her friend and began brushing out her hair with strong, purposeful strokes.

“Not at all,” she replied, careful to keep her tone even. “I just had a run-in with that witch, Johanne. She tried to block my way, so I pushed her aside.”

“Oh, how perfect!” Marie said, clapping her hands in approval.

“She deserved it. That cow thinks she’s so far above us since she married that old man, but she’s no better than she was.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Marie took her seat again and began applying herself to the task of restraining the thick dark waves of her hair.

Keeping her eyes on her own reflection, Louise expertly pinned her wayward brown curls into a tidy chignon. Pleased with the look of elegant sophistication, she rose and slipped her feet into heeled slippers, donned white elbow-length evening gloves and draped her favorite lace shawl over her shoulders, then retrieved her black beaded bag from where she’d stashed it in the drawer.

Satisfied, she leaned down and planted a quick kiss on Marie’s cheek before turning to leave. Moving deftly through the still milling dancers, she made her way through the room and down the narrow hallway that lead to the exit door.

Spying Carl chatting with a couple of friends, she composed her features and slowed her steps. A lady mustn’t appear too eager, she reminded herself. After a grueling year of training at Madam Tressard’s hands, she knew how to comport herself in aristocratic society. In the world Carl inhabited, manners and propriety were everything.

On seeing her approach, his eyes lit up. With outstretched hands he greeted her. “There she is—the most beautiful dancer in the world!”

Accepting his hands, Louise laughed. “I wouldn’t say I’m the most beautiful dancer in the world, but I’m glad you think so.”

His answering grin was all she needed to feel right with the world. Eager to be away, she allowed him to lead her out into the poorly lit, dank alleyway that emptied onto the street teeming with activity. Carriages lined the curb, and Louise’s pulse quickened at the cacophony of noise that assaulted them. From the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the chatter of pedestrians passing by, and shouts of street-sellers hawking their wares, Copenhagen was a bustle of life that she adored.

On reaching Carl’s personal carriage, she waited for the driver to assist her up into the luxurious interior. The moment they were both seated, she heard the driver snap the reins and wrapped her fingers around the velvet hand strap as the vehicle lurched into traffic.

The heavy wine colored curtains over the windows were drawn aside, but for once she didn’t care what was happening beyond the confines of the carriage. Instead, she watched her companion’s face to gauge his mood. Relieved to note that he appeared to be in his usual state of good humor, she rested her back against the deeply upholstered velvet cushions. Silently cursing the restraints of the corset, she was forced to draw in shallow breaths. How she preferred the freedom and lightness of her dancing costumes that allowed her to breathe and move freely!

“It was a splendid performance this evening, my dear, and almost everyone who was anyone was present.” Carl said, interrupting her wayward thoughts.

Louise nodded, pleased he’d enjoyed it. As the sole heir to Berlingske Tidende, one of Denmark’s largest and most respected newspapers, he moved in elite social circles that included members of the aristocracy, so of course he knew many of the ballet’s most prestigious patrons.

Straightening in her seat to ease the slight pinch that started to form in her side, she smoothed her skirts.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought Marie’s solo performance was especially inspired tonight though.” Only the dancers knew just how difficult it was to make every move appear effortless and graceful.

Carl smiled, crossing his legs in the small space. “So it was, my dear. Of course, it’s you I watch with joy.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, wondering whether or not to share her secret with him just yet.

“Is something wrong?”

Surprised by his astuteness, she replied. “No. Nothing is wrong. Why do you ask?”

He quirked an eyebrow. “You seem somewhat distracted.”

The excitement she’d felt earlier gave way to a serious bout of nerves. What if I’m wrong about his feelings for me? Pressing her damp palms surreptitiously into the folds of her gown, she returned his smile. “Do I? I apologize. I suppose my mind is still with the performance. I think I could have done better, but never mind. Where are we going for dinner?”

“I thought we’d go to the new dining establishment in town, if that sounds all right?”

Although he phrased the last as a question, she knew very well he’d already made up his mind, and likely booked a reservation. How irritating it was that men made all the decisions in any relationship. Just once she’d love to be the one to decide what they did or where they went. As a man of wealth and solid social standing, it wouldn't occur to him to consult her.

Knowing her place as his mistress, she offered an encouraging smile. “That sounds wonderful. I hear the food is excellent.”

It took less than five minutes to reach their destination, time which was spent chatting about mutual acquaintances and the latest gossip. It never failed to amuse her how the aristocracy reveled in spreading rumors and innuendo about everyone they knew. It seemed to her that they all knew every little detail of each others’ lives, their all-consuming preoccupation with who was doing what with who reminding her of a gaggle of quacking geese. In her opinion, people ought to be more concerned with their own lives. Nodding and smiling in the appropriate places, she listened as Carl continued to regale her with amusing stories.

During their meal, he was attentive and flirtatious. The food was superb, and the Maître’d proved to be a delight with his pronounced French accent and impeccable manners. To calm her nerves she accepted several glasses of wine with her dinner. By the time they left the restaurant, she was feeling quite giddy. Life was good. After all, she had the love and admiration of a wealthy, respected man who treated her well, and her dancing fulfilled her soul. Soon, she hoped to have it all.

Finally alone within the carriage again, she was eager to bring Carl into the secret she’d been so anxious to share with him. Leaning forward, she took his hands and held them in a tight grip. Surprised, he quirked an eyebrow and squeezed her fingers in return.

“You seem quite on edge this evening. What’s going on in that lovely head of yours?”

Bolstered by the wine and never one to mince words, she held his eyes and blurted out, “We’re going to have a baby! I’ve been so excited to tell you, but I needed to find just the right time. Perhaps I should have waited, but …”

Her voice trailed away when he withdrew his hands, and then sat back against the cushions, a shocked expression on his blanched face.

“It’s all right. I’m strong and healthy, so there’s no reason to think something will go wrong.” His sudden physical withdrawal was disconcerting. He’s just surprised. Once he has a chance to digest the news, he’ll be pleased. He loves me, he’s said so many times.

Carl licked his lips, his gaze sliding sideways to stare out the window. She decided to give him a moment to adjust.

Finally he looked back at her, his expression solemn. “What are you going to do?”

Alarm pricked. “What do you mean what am I going to do? This isn’t only my baby, it’s ours.”

The butterflies that had been dancing in her belly earlier now beat their wings furiously. He wasn’t exactly thrilled by her announcement.

With a pained expression, he stared. “We, we can’t do this. You know how it is. Besides, how can you continue to dance if you’re pregnant?”

Anger began to simmer, replacing her earlier excitement. Her spine stiffening, she glared at him. “It isn’t the pregnancy that concerns you, is it? It’s what happens after the baby is born that has you worried,” she said. “You’re afraid your parents will disinherit you if you bring home a lowly dancer, or perhaps you’re worried what people will think if you marry someone with such a poor background?”

Carl reached across what now seemed like a vast chasm and caught her gloved hands in his noticeably trembling ones. “Please, be reasonable! Perhaps it isn’t too late to do something.”

Shock rocketed through her. After having witnessed Margarethe’s tragic death so many years before, she’d never considered aborting her pregnancy. The fact that Carl did was terrifying. She tasted bile at the back of her throat at the thought of his suggestion.

Shaking her head, she pulled her hands from Carl’s and sat back, her mind whirling while her stomach tightened with sick dread. “I won’t go to some dirty back street midwife who’ll give me some poison for a fee, then send me home to die in a pool of blood, like poor Margarethe!”

Immediately the vivid image of the dead ballerina’s bloodied, beseeching hand slammed into her brain. She’d told him the story during one of their intimate moments, so he knew her fears!

Unable to keep her voice from cracking she asked, “Is that what you want?”

Watching him, she could see the fear etched on his face. “Of course not,” he said, his lips trembling. “How could you think such a thing? I adore you. I always have!”

Although he spoke words of love, she remained unconvinced. How could he even suggest terminating the pregnancy? Her hands icy inside their gloves, she continued to stare at him. When she finally spoke again, her voice held a steely resolve. “I plan to have this baby, and I need you to promise to support me in this decision.”

Moments ticked by while he continued to return her stare, his face registering every emotion from fear to finally, acceptance. Blowing out a rush of air, he nodded. “Then you have it. I would never want you to risk your health, or dear God, your life. We have plenty of time to decide what to do after the child is born.”

The remainder of the trip home was spent in silence as she stared out the window at the black night. Carl retreated into his own world and offered no further comment or words of comfort. Casting furtive glances at him from under her lashes, she prayed that he just needed time to adjust. What really terrified her though, was that he’d made no mention whatsoever of marriage, and for a woman, marriage was the only real salvation for an unplanned pregnancy.

Sitting in the cramped carriage, she thought she’d lose her fine supper at Carl’s feet. As the grueling moments ticked past, her emotions swung back and forth with the carriage, from fear to anger and back again. What happened to his words of love and claims that he doesn’t care about my background? she thought bitterly. Were they all just lies? While it was no stretch to imagine that his fears stemmed from the fact that his elitist family would never accept her, she’d honestly believed it was only a matter of time before they married. Now that mirage turned to dust.

Icy fear sank its claws into her gut at the thought of becoming an unwed mother, just like her own. Having lived with the label of illegitimacy all her life, she’d grown up with the cruel taunts of children and harsh condemnation of ignorant adults. I can’t do the same thing to my own child, she thought in fierce rejection of the possibility.

Time; they both needed time to come to terms with this new situation. Surely Carl would come to realize he had responsibilities to her and their unborn baby. Even as she thought it though, she knew he had no real legal obligation toward her at all. No, women carried the full weight of responsibility in these sordid situations, and the social stigma. How stupid she was for allowing herself to be caught in such a common trap. If she wasn’t careful, she’d lose her career as a dancer, Carl, everything.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

“Push!”

Louise fought the wave of nausea that engulfed her and focused on bearing down with every ounce of determination she had, screaming in agony, praying for salvation from the unending torture.

“I’m going to die,” she gasped between breaths as the pain began to recede. Sweat rolled off her face and body, but she was too drained of energy to care. Slowly she released her death grip on the sheets clenched in her fists while she fought to regain control of her fear.

Her mother, Juliane, bathed her heated brow with a damp cloth. “Nonsense. You’re young and strong. There’s no reason to think you won’t come through this just fine.”

Juliane’s brisk tone did little to convince her, and although exhausted beyond bearing, she glared up at her mother’s calm face. As yet another wave of agony slammed into her, causing her distended belly to tighten in another contraction, Louise cursed the child’s absent father and God together.

“I see the crown! The child is coming!” The midwife’s words registered through the excruciating pain, giving Louise hope that either the child would be born, or she’d die. Either way, she would finally know peace.

Almost an hour later the midwife announced, “It’s a boy!” Feeling the child slip from her body, Louise began to weep. Now she’d have to face the difficult decision of what to do about her son. Carl had yet to put in an appearance, despite fourteen hours of grueling labor, so she could only interpret his absence as a lack of support.

I can’t do this alone. Please, God, let Carl help me.

Her mother's face hovered above her, a deep pain etched in her eyes, though her lips curved in faint smile as she took Louise’s limp hand and squeezed it.

“You have a son,” Juliane said, her face beaded with sweat that caused damp tendrils of grey/brown hair to cling to her cheeks and forehead.

“Has Carl arrived?”

“No, my love, not yet,” Juliane replied, her eyes telling their tale of worry.

Weak tears continued to seep from beneath Louise’s lashes as she closed her eyes. “I did everything we agreed to. I came here to this dull little village where nobody knows me to have the baby so my reputation wouldn’t be ruined. He swore he’d come the moment he received word that the baby was on the way!” With each word, her panic increased.

“Shh, I understand how you feel,” Juliane said. “He probably couldn’t get away in time.”

He’s had hours and hours of time,” Louise snapped, her lips quivering in memory of the argument that had ensued between her and Carl during his last visit. Her dreams for the stability and respectability of marriage were dashed, and now she was left alone with a new baby.

Seeing the flash of hurt on her mother’s weary face at her harsh tone, she immediately felt guilty. At forty-seven years of age Juliane already looked worn out and disappointed by life. I don’t want my life to be like hers. She’s done everything she can for me, and I love her for it, but I'm not strong enough to be an unwed mother.

Juliane turned and began folding the linens on a small bedside table. “Carl is a good man. I’m sure he wanted to be here for you.” Although the words were meant to be reassuring she kept her eyes averted, so Louise knew her mother was as unsure of Carl’s intention as she was.

Closing her eyes for a moment, Louise dragged in a steadying breath. Her anger and resentment against Carl’s family had grown over the months of her pregnancy, and as she lay in a pool of her own blood, she acknowledged that her estimation of Carl had also slipped considerably as a result.

In the background she became aware of the insistent wailing of an infant. She hadn’t even seen her son yet. To ward off further comment, she turned to the midwife.

“May I hold him?” She was both terrified and excited at the prospect of finally seeing her baby.

Mrs. Jensen, a plump woman of around sixty years whose kind eyes were reassuring, came forward and carefully placed the bundle wrapped in cloth in her trembling arms. Gazing down into the tiny wrinkled red face, Louise was engulfed by an unexpected feeling of love so tremendous she could hardly breathe. He was beautiful. His healthy lungs were being exercised well, as evidenced by his strident cries. His tiny arms waved angrily in the air, as if in protest to his abrupt entrance into the world. When her vision blurred and fat tear drops plopped onto the white swaddling, she realized she was crying again. Seeing his perfectly formed features, she couldn’t believe this little being had come from her.

Suddenly the baby opened his eyes, and she found herself staring into the face of a miracle. Although she’d been told that babies couldn’t see at birth, the sight of her son’s dark eyes had her questioning the truth of that belief. He quieted and seemed to be staring back at her as intently as she at him. There was an inexplicable communion, and she felt a moment of awe unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. She loved him. Wholly, completely, with all the depth and breadth her heart was capable of.

Juliane’s hand cradled the small head. “He’s perfect. No matter what you decide about his future, you’ve delivered a healthy son into this world.”

At the thought of giving him up Louise’s throat closed, then she laughed brokenly when the baby turned his head toward her finger where she caressed his cheek with soft strokes.

A small smile tugged at Juliane’s lips. “He’s strong, but he needs you to feed him.”

Nervous about doing it all wrong, Louise allowed her mother to assist her, and watched in fascination as her son sought and found the nipple, then sucked greedily at the nourishment her body gave him.

“What name have you chosen for him?” Mrs. Jensen asked.

Glancing up, Louise smiled. “Frederik Carl Christian Berling,” she said, pride filling her soul at the sound of her son’s name on her lips.

Nodding, the midwife replied, “It’s a good, strong name.” Hesitating a moment, she added, “I couldn’t help but overhear you talking to your mother. If you decide you cannot keep your son, for any reason, I may know of a couple who would welcome him as their own. They’re good, decent people, but God hasn’t graced them with children of their own. They came to me just two weeks ago asking that I keep them in mind.”

Again Louise’s heart twisted at the thought of giving the baby up for adoption, but she’d thought long and hard before his birth about her circumstance. Although Carl agreed to help financially, she knew from experience with her own father that it wasn’t a guarantee of life-long support. Besides, keeping the child would mean she’d also have to give up dancing with the ballet, which she definitely didn’t want to do. In the beginning it had all seemed so simple, but she hadn’t foreseen the astounding depth of feeling she now experienced for her child.

Her breath catching in her throat she said, “I think I’ll need some time to make up my mind, and I’d like my son’s father to see him first. Perhaps …”

Her voice trailed away. There would be no perhaps, or possibility of a future marriage to Carl. His parents had been very clear that they would not accept her into their midst. They had much bigger plans for their only son. Despite her current upset with him, she knew he was a good, decent man. He’d promised financial support, but without marriage, there were no guarantees. No, her son’s future lay within her own hands.

Mrs. Jensen glanced over at Juliane, who had gone completely silent at Louise’s obvious reluctance, then said, “I understand completely, but I must tell you, these people are desperate to become parents, and I have another young lady who is in the same situation as you. She too might have to give up her child, and is within a month or less of delivering.”

More confused than ever, Louise nodded. “I’ll think seriously about your offer, I promise. Thank you.”

Once the midwife and her young assistant removed the bloodied bedding and sponged her clean, Juliane helped her don a fresh nightgown. Weary beyond belief, she settled back against the pillows to cuddle her son. Although her eyes kept closing out of sheer exhaustion, she wanted to watch him while he slept peacefully in her arms. Listening to her mother shoo the other two women out of the room, she continued to focus on the miracle of her newborn baby, smiling again as his little mouth worked in imitation of suckling while he slept. I wonder what babies dream of?

Juliane bustled forward. “Come, give him to me. He’s sleeping, and now you need to rest and regain your strength.”

Acknowledging the wisdom of her mother’s words, she allowed Juliane to take the baby, then eased down into the bed, every bone and piece of flesh in her body aching.

“Go to sleep, darling. I’ll watch over my grandson. When you awaken, you’ll feel much better,” Juliane said, brushing the hair from Louise’s forehead.

Finally closing her eyes, Louise drifted into sleep, praying Carl would be there when she awoke.

 

* * *

 

Two whole days passed before he chose to put in an appearance. She’d almost given up hope that he would bother. During that time she fluctuated between white hot anger and despair at his absence, but suddenly there he was, bursting into the room with his usual joie de vivre just as the young maid attempted to announce him.

“There she is! My lovely ballerina, you look impossibly beautiful,” he declared with a forced brightness that didn’t fool her one little bit.

Louise fought to hold back the smile that threatened to break out into the open. Thinning her lips into a solemn expression, she reminded herself that she couldn’t sit there and smile like a simpering idiot at his delayed entrance. “Quiet,” she hissed. “Your son is asleep, and if you wake him he’ll howl and set up a terrible racket.”

Immediately Carl’s head swiveled to take in the small bassinet set to the left of her bed. He approached cautiously, as if afraid a snake might jump out at him from the linens of his infant son’s bed. Juliane graciously withdrew from the room, closing the door behind her with a soft click.

She watched Carl with a mixture of anxiety and fury. Does he think he can just stroll in and all will be well with the world? Of course he does. He’s been born to wealth and privilege, and has little responsibilities, so that’s exactly what he expects.

At twenty-nine years of age, Carl’s tall, lean form was pleasing to the eye. With a high forehead, dark brown eyes, and straight nose, he was a striking man, and even now she had to remind herself not to get pulled in by his charm and good looks. Children, however, were not particularly one of his favorite things. Catching her lower lip in her teeth, she held her breath for his reaction.

“Well, what do you think of him?” she asked.

Turning to look at her with a bemused expression he replied, “He’s very small, isn’t he?”

Emitting a sigh of exasperation, she said, “Babies are supposed to be small.”

Carl frowned, his gaze returning to his sleeping son. “Yes, yes of course.”

Straightening, he approached. On reaching her bedside, he took her limp hand in his and kissed her knuckles.

“Where have you been?” Not wishing to appear weak, she pushed up in the bed to brace her back against the pillows.

“At our country estate,” he replied. “I told you weeks ago about the birthday party my mother arranged there for my sister. I distinctly remember telling you that I’d be gone for a few days.”

At the mention of the party, she remembered him mentioning it, but was unwilling to let the matter drop. She’d given birth to his son, yet he’d sent no word to let her know when, or if he’d come to visit.

“I sent a messenger around to your house to let you know the baby was on the way. Didn’t you get it?”

Stroking the back of her hand with his thumb, Carl looked at her with wide eyes. “My love, I only just returned earlier today. I came as soon as I got the message on my arrival home, and found to my dismay that my father had intervened and instructed my manservant not to relay any messages onward during my absence. I’m furious with his high-handedness, but not particularly surprised. I’m so sorry you thought I was avoiding you. My God, I would never do such a thing!”

Mollified, she sniffed. “I was quite upset with you, because of course that’s exactly what I assumed.”

“Then hopefully I’ve eased your mind,” he said with a winning smile. “Are you feeling well?” The solicitousness of his tone reassured her.

“Quite well, yes,” she said, finally offering him a small smile in return.

“Wonderful! And when will you be able to return to the ballet?”

Wincing at the callousness of the question, she caught her breath. He hadn’t shown an ounce of paternal awe or love toward their son, and now seemed more intent on discovering when she could resume her old life.

Her eyes locked with his. “I don’t know. I now have a child to consider, so things are much more complicated.”

Pulling forward the chair her mother had recently vacated, he lowered himself down, frowning as he did so. “What do you mean? We discussed this before the child was born …”

“Carl Christian,” she said, folding her hands in her lap.

“I beg your pardon?”

Hoping to elicit some positive parental response from him, she announced, “Your son’s name is Frederik Carl Christian Berling, but I’m calling him Carl.”

Carl looked taken aback for a moment, and then he gave her a bright smile. “You’re giving him my name?”

She shook her head at the density of the man. “Of course. Who else’s name should he have, if not yours?” She didn’t bother trying to hide her irritation.

He looked uncomfortable with her pithy response. “I don’t know. I just assumed he would be a Rasmussen, as you are. After all, your mother gave you her name, and I thought perhaps you might care to do the same.”

Holding his gaze, she replied. “No. You know very well that my father was already married and had a family, so couldn’t claim me. Do you intend to follow in his footsteps?”

Carl grasped her hand again. “Of course not, my darling!”

Still uncertain of his true feelings, she decided to press a little further, “What about your parents?”

He waved a hand in a dismissing gesture. “Pshaw, they have no say in this matter.”

“I see, and what about me? What about us?” She held her breath in hopes that he would smile and tell her he loved her and their baby, and would claim them both.

Patting her hand, his eyes skidded sideways. “Why, we carry on as we always have, sweetheart. You need to return to the ballet as soon as possible, so you don’t lose your spot in the troupe.”

Her heart dropped. “I see, and what about our son? Will you claim him?”

Carl offered a shaky laugh. “I have no issue with claiming him, but of course we must be very careful not to allow this … situation, to mar your reputation.”

Unsure of just what he was trying to say, she prodded, “And your family? What will they think if you claim us?”

Carl went dead still, and then leaned forward, placing the lightest of kisses on her lips before straightening to look her in the eyes. “My darling, you know how much I adore you, but you must understand that this changes nothing. We discussed this before, and much as I wish it could be otherwise, I simply can’t claim you as my wife. Nor can we afford to allow word of this birth to leak out to anyone, save a few of our closest friends and confidantes. You know as well as I do that it would be akin to social suicide for you.”

As quickly as her heart had soared, it now plummeted to earth. Withdrawing her hand from his, she stared at him. She’d been right all along; he was just like her father. He thought only of himself and his own selfish needs, never of the woman he claimed to love or the child he’d fathered.

“Please, darling, tell me you understand,” he begged.

Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be left alone, before she said something she might regret. Looking at him sitting there dressed in his fine clothes, she wanted to scream at him, scratch his face, make him bleed and hurt him!

Instead, she composed her features into one of neutrality. “Of course,” she said, withdrawing her hands and tucking them under the covers. Much as she felt like tearing into him, she needed his continued support, if not emotional, then at the very least, financial.

“Now, I need to rest if I’m to regain my strength,” she said, unable to keep the brittle hardness out of her voice. “My mother will see you out.”

His forehead creasing into a deep frown at her abruptness, he looked about to say something, but clearly thought better of it. Jumping to his feet, he bowed stiffly at the waist, wished her a good day, then left. The closing of the door wakened their son. No, her son. She’d known all along that she, and she alone, would be responsible for their futures, but she’d so desperately hoped Carl would prove her wrong.

Swinging her legs from the bed wearily, she went to retrieve the baby from his bassinet. The visit had proved to be so short he hadn’t even seen his father.

As she settled back into bed to nurse her child, tears seeped from beneath her lashes. She wondered if she’d handled the situation all wrong. Perhaps she’d been too bold and insistent. Men were touchy characters with tender egos, and despite all her experience with them she had yet to figure them out.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

“This is beyond ridiculous; I don’t even know the woman!”

Prince Frederik paced back and forth in the salon at Carl’s townhouse, and watching his agitation, Louise couldn’t help the tug of sympathy she felt. Tall and sturdily built, the prince was fashionably dressed and sported a trim goatee on his handsome face. With his dark hair and eyes, he struck her as a dashing figure. She only wished there were something she could say or do for him, but she hadn’t a clue what.

“I understand, but your father arranged this marriage to Princess Caroline, and you have no choice if you don’t want to be banished back to Jutland. Besides, you can’t very well leave a princess standing at the altar tomorrow. Come on, have a drink and drown your misery.” Turning to face the prince, Carl handed him a tumbler of brandy. Then taking up two filled glasses, he crossed the room and handed one to Louise before resuming his seat.

Frederik stopped a moment to glower at his friend. “I’ll need more than one drink if I’m to get through the blasted day tomorrow! Perhaps I shouldn’t stop drinking and arrive at the church in a happily sodden state. God damn my father for forcing me into another marriage. Why can’t he just leave me alone to live my life?”

“At least this one is prettier than your last wife. There’s something to be said for that,” Louise said in an attempt to bring some levity into the situation.

Downing the strong shot of brandy, Frederik thumped the crystal glass onto a nearby table top. “A lot of good that will do me, since she’s as high-strung and arrogant as any woman I’ve ever met. She thinks too highly of herself and her station by far, and is boring as hell to talk to.”

Carl laughed, tossing a good measure of his own drink down his throat. “Then don’t talk to her! I’ll admit she wouldn’t be my first choice, but then we aren’t given the luxury of choice, are we my friend?”

Grimacing, Frederik turned to face Louise and Carl once again. “Let’s change the subject. I’d like to congratulate you on the birth of your son, and thank you for coming out of your seclusion to support me, Louise. How are you both doing?”

Taking another swallow of his drink, Carl looked deeply into the amber liquid then cast Louise a quick glance. “As well as can be expected I suppose.”

Irritated at Carl’s interjection and supposition that Frederik referred to the two of them rather than her and their son, she shot him a hard glare.

“The baby is healthy and strong, and I, well, I’m adjusting.” Carl’s head came up to catch her glare and he had the grace to flush at his mistake.

She looked away for a moment before continuing. “It’s difficult hiding away in a small village where I know no one, but as you’re aware, we couldn’t risk someone discovering my condition. If the truth were known, it would dash all hope for any kind of future for me. Thank goodness my mother is there to keep me company, or I think I’d go quite insane from boredom!”

Frederik’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “Having also been sent away for a period of time, I can relate to your feelings on the matter. Jutland had little to offer in the way of social engagements, but fortunately there were some fellows there who could play a rousing game of cards.”

She hadn’t thought of it before, but of course he’d understand her feelings of isolation, having been sent away by his father for so many months.

“As for being here, I’m happy to oblige,” she said, smiling to let him know she meant it. “I consider you a friend, and I know you aren’t looking forward to tomorrow.”

She gave a shaky laugh. “Besides, tongues might wag if I were absent, since the three of us are so often seen together. It would appear odd for me to miss such a momentous occasion as your wedding.”

“And the child? I hope you won’t mind my presumptuousness, but what have you decided?” Frederik asked.

Louise raised her glass to take a delicate sip, her eyes darting away from Frederik’s keen gaze. “We’ve agreed to give him up for adoption, since I can’t very well raise him while continuing to dance.”

An uncomfortable silence ensued, but after a moment Frederik said, “I’m sorry to hear it. It must be a very difficult decision for you.”

Grateful for his acknowledgment of the difficulties she faced, she was about to thank him when Carl expelled a long sigh.

“Before his birth we agreed that it’s the best course of action. This way, no one need be the wiser regarding the unfortunate situation.”

Louise felt heat warm her cheeks and her breath caught in her throat at hearing Carl’s cool assessment of their plans while referring to the birth of their child as an ‘unfortunate situation’. Her mood seemed to fluctuate wildly in the two weeks since her son’s birth, and although she had decided to give him up, at that moment she wanted to wipe the despondent look from Carl’s face. In giving up their son, nothing would change in his life. In fact, he hardly came around at all, and the few times he did, he seemed reluctant to see the baby, claiming he didn’t want to become too attached.

“Yes, there’s that, and the fact that I won’t have my son being raised as a bastard, like I was,” she said, aware of the sharpness that laced her tone.

She saw Frederik’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise at her bald statement, but she didn’t care. She probably shouldn’t have come with Carl this evening, but she’d been desperate for an evening out, and wanted to offer her support to Frederik. Unfortunately, she seemed unable to tame her tongue when it came to what was currently happening in her own life. Throwing Carl a glance to gauge his reaction, she noted his deep frown as he stared into his now empty glass.

“I wish I could offer you more,” Carl said. “But as I said, men like us are not in a position to chart our own course. We’re at the whim of our families and our duties to them, and of course, Frederik’s to Denmark.”

Frederik cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with the awkward turn in the conversation. “So it would seem,” he said with a brief nod. “Still, the affection of a good woman is to be cherished. I envy your relationship and friendship.”

Turning to Louise, he continued. “I know many of our set feel you and others of your social station are beneath us, but Carl and I know better. I’d give anything to claim such a warm relation with a woman, and the consequences be damned. Better that than the misery I now face at the end of the day tomorrow. Princess Mariane, as she informed me she prefers to be called, is hand-picked by my father to be the future Queen of Denmark, but the thought of her arrogant, pretty face and body gracing my bed does nothing to stir the fires of desire.”

Carl snorted. “I can’t imagine taking a woman I don’t even like as a wife. I’ve seen my own parent’s cold relationship that produced two children and little else good. The royal family boasts no better odds, and we’ve both seen too many disastrously unhappy marriages.”

Raising his eyes to the prince, Carl said, “You, my friend, are staring down the sharp end of a sword. I don’t envy you, despite your exalted status. Perhaps I can come up with a ruse to get us away from Copenhagen within the next few weeks.”

Frederik laughed at the suggestion. “I’d be forever in your debt if you would. I doubt I could last more than two weeks with both my father and Mariane for company. Yes, I think an urgent trip to France or England might be in order!”

Carl stood and faced Frederik, his eyes alight with mischief. “Absolutely! Maybe by then we can convince Louise to join us for a short while before she returns to the ballet. After all, I think we’ll all need a spot of fun to lighten our moods.”

Feeling very much outside the new found gaiety, she simply gave a half-hearted smile while the two men congratulated each other on a brilliant plan.

The following day she sat at Carl’s side at the long dining table and watched while Frederik faced his new bride. Raising his goblet of wine, he spoke polite words of welcome and toasted her in front of the massive room overflowing with members of royalty and Denmark’s most aristocratic families. King Christian beamed at the couple as if he’d accomplished an extraordinary feat by bringing the two together. Although she could see that Frederik tried to be pleasant to the princess, the petite blonde looked to be no more pleased by the union than he was, and she had yet to smile at him.

A round of applause shook the rafters as the toast was echoed, and although she added hers to the rest, she couldn’t seem to escape the sadness that had dogged her throughout the day. She knew Frederik hated the lie of a marriage he’d just entered into, and she wondered if that was all there was to life; just going through the motions and accepting whatever fate tossed your way.

As she took up her utensils and continued to eat her meal, ignoring the chattering voices on all sides of her, she remembered Frederik telling her that after his parent’s divorce when he was just four years old, he’d been neglected and left to his own devices. His father’s remarriage a few years later did little to strengthen the bonds between father and son, resulting in a strained relationship between them.

Looking around the room at the laughing, smiling faces, she wondered how many people there could claim true happiness. Perhaps she was being foolish, expecting to find real love, or even wishing for marriage, since she’d seen first-hand that it didn’t guarantee lasting happiness. Clearly Frederik accepted his role as Denmark’s prince, and was resigned to doing what had to be done, rather than what he wanted to do.

I need to stop grieving over something that can’t be changed, she thought with renewed resolve. Whether I like it or not, life is what it is, and I’m fortunate to have the support of a man like Carl.

Having given the obligatory toast, Frederik resumed his seat and began drinking heavily of the wine that was poured for him. Hearing Carl’s raucous laughter as he joked with a middle-aged man sitting beside him, Louise wished she were able to relax and join in the revelry the other guests seemed to feel. Glancing at the king, she caught his stern nod to Frederik’s wine glass. It seemed he disapproved of his son’s indulgence. She was surprised when Frederik raised his glass in a silent toast in response, then proceeded to toss back the entire contents in one swallow.

When Frederik’s gaze swung to catch hers, her breath caught in a hitch. Raising her own glass in a silent salute, she offered him a small smile, silently applauding him. Although he’d been forced into this sham of a marriage, the King couldn’t control his every movement.

Watching the scene play out, she was also pretty sure the King wouldn’t dare cause a scene in front of so many people, including the bride’s parents and extended family. She stifled a chuckle when she saw Frederik blatantly hold up his glass to be filled once again.

Unfortunately, as course after course of excellent food was served, she became more and more withdrawn. Staring morosely into her rapidly chilling soup, she wished she’d stayed home. She didn’t fit in here with these beautiful people whose braying laughter hid cunning, avaricious minds, their faces hidden behind masks to be worn in public.

Am I any different? I’m sitting here at a table surrounded by people I neither like nor care about, and who certainly don’t like me, pretending to be something I’m not. My mask is as firmly in place as theirs while I play out my part.

 

 

 

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