A Musketeer's Heart - Chapter Twenty

The large terrace was shrouded in shadows, and blissfully quiet, the silence interrupted only by the sounds of the night and the Queen’s footsteps.

“How can you walk so quietly?” Anne asked. “I could almost believe you’re not here.”

“It’s the slippers,” Alexandra replied distractedly. “The soles are made of soft leather.”

Queen Anne drew her to a stop underneath a softly-glowing lantern. “Show me.”

Alexandra lifted the hem of her gown, poked the foot out from underneath it. The slippers were made of black silk damask stitched on a soft leather sole. There were no lacing or ties, yet they fit snugly and comfortably, since they were made especially for her. All the slippers she owned, most of them made entirely of supple leather, weren’t made on the usual straight lasts, but for each foot individually, offering the best fit possible.

The Queen leaned down for a closer look. “They’re beautiful. Lovely pattern.” She straightened, patted her skirts back into shape. “And I’m sure they’re not torture devices as my heeled shoes.”

“I’m short. A few inches won’t make a difference.” Alexandra shrugged. “And I like to be comfortable.”

“It shows,” the Queen said with a soft smile. “Your gown is simple yet elegant without any unnecessary frivolities, you’re not being strangled by your own corset, the hairstyle isn’t pulling your face off, and your feet aren’t screaming for release.”

“Your majesty—”

Anne shook her head. “It’s not a reprimand, I truly envy you. I wish I could be as free.” She sighed. “We both know what would happen if I appeared in public in a gown that didn’t consist of at least twenty yards of fabric and ten pounds of jewellery. I wouldn’t set the fashion, the people in there would have a new target. Had the Queen gone mad? Was the country destitute? What sort of image do we project to other countries?” Another sigh. “No one should be fodder for gossip, yet people like those in there, focus their every effort on spreading dung about everybody else in order to make themselves look better, in order for others not spreading dung about them.”

“Your majesty,” Alexandra began again. “Why are you being nice to me? Why are you even talking to me? You know how those people are, you shouldn’t associate with me, my taint is contagious.”

“I’m the Queen of France,” Anne answered matter-of-factly, “I’m already a target of gossip. I told you, some people live for that. But my support holds more weight than all of them. I’m talking to you, because you’re an intelligent woman whom I admire. I’m being nice to you, because I like you, and because I owe you more than you could ever imagine.”

“You don’t owe me anything, your majesty.”

“Of course, I do,” the Queen insisted. “You saved my dear friend. From a bullet and from himself. He’s been slowly killing himself, and you made him realize he’s been throwing his life away. You made him see what true love is, what he’s been missing.” Anne smiled, happiness and gratitude shining in her eyes. “Loving you didn’t change him, it just peeled away the layers, until the real him appeared.”

Alexandra gaped. “What are you talking about?”

The Queen merely nodded toward the end of the terrace where four men stood, Athos, Porthos, and d’Artagnan keeping Aramis curbed between them as all four looked at them.

Alexandra sputtered. “Aramis doesn’t love me.”

The Queen chuckled. “He was willing to attack an English nobleman in the middle of a crowded ballroom for spreading lies about you. What would you call that?”

“A misguided protective instinct?” she supplied.

“As you wish,” the Queen murmured as they approached the four musketeers and released Alexandra’s arm. “Messieurs,” she said, looking at Athos, Porthos, and d’Artagnan, “accompany me back to the ballroom and let’s leave Lady Alexandra and the man with the—What was it?” she looked at her. “Misguided protective instinct to talk.” She looked at Aramis archly. “Don’t ruin everything by being you.”

Alexandra made to follow the Queen, but Aramis stepped into her path. Keeping her eyes averted, she tried to duck the other way, but he blocked her again. She huffed.

“Look at me,” he demanded and when she didn’t, released a growl of frustration. “Look at me, Alexandra,” he repeated more gently. “Please, I won’t think less of you because of a few lies.”

She sighed, looked up, and met his gaze squarely. “They’re not lies.”


Aramis merely looked at her, waiting. He refused to believe what the people in the ballroom were whispering weren’t lies. He knew they were lies, damn it all to Hell. Yes, she might not be related to Buckingham, that was rather obvious from the differences in their colouring, but that didn’t make her the man’s mistress. She’d been untouched until he’d had her. So what if she wasn’t of noble blood, what if her beautiful skin was darker, what gave the people in there the right to judge, the right to humiliate her, the right to call her a—He balled his hands into fists, rage rising inside him again.

“Not all of it,” she specified quietly, bringing him back from the brink.

“I don’t care,” he said adamantly. It was the truth, he didn’t care. It didn’t matter where she came from, it mattered who she’d become. What mattered was inside. Her brain, her wit, her courage...Her heart. That was what made her so utterly beautiful, so appealing. Her true beauty shone from within. She was pure, she was light. She was love. She was everything the guests in the ballroom weren’t. Everything he wasn’t.

She shrugged. “You might as well know. You’ll see how wrong about me you’ve been.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. Nothing she said would make him see her differently. “All right, explain.”

She leaned back against a pillar, clasped her hands behind her back, and closed her eyes. “My real mother was a Romani, daughter of the clan leader. One day she was raped on a country road, and ended up with child. She could’ve terminated the pregnancy, but she refused, so her father disowned her, and sent her into exile. She found employment as a scullery maid in a country manor, but when I was around four, the master of the house attacked her and tried to rape her. She lost her post, the man’s wife making sure my mother couldn’t find work in any respectable households. She was a witch, they said.” She opened her eyes and looked at him, her gaze resigned. “The only work she could find was in a brothel.”

His heart broke for her, and for the strong, brave woman who’d given birth to her and been willing to do anything to provide for her child.

“My mother had to sell her body to keep me fed, warm and dry.”

He wanted to touch her, to hold her, but he knew she wouldn’t let him. She held herself stiffly, rigidly. “It wasn’t your fault,” he murmured.

She chuckled mirthlessly. “Wasn’t it? She could’ve stayed with her family, with her clan if she didn’t decide to keep me.”

The fact she’d kept her child, proved the woman’s courage, her heart, more than anything else could.

“She was beautiful,” Alexandra continued. “I was a baby, but I remember. I remember her voice as she sang me to sleep, I remember how soft her skin was when she held me, I remember how she looked like. She was so little, she looked fragile, but she wasn’t. Her skin was darker than mine, her hair was black and wavy falling to her hips, and her eyes were so big and dark. They called her the Gipsy, and every patron wanted her. I remember how they looked at her. They wanted her even after she became sick.” She hugged herself. “She was so sick, her skin clammy and pale, she was coughing blood, yet they didn’t let her rest until she got better. I took care of her the best I could, but she never got better.”

Aramis gritted his teeth. No child should watch their mother slowly wither and die. No child should lose a parent like that.

“The other women were relieved when she died. She was competition, you see. They never said anything while she was alive, but they made it quite clear afterward. And since they hadn’t been able to take it out on her and ruin “the merchandise”, they focused their resentment on me. The owner kept me around, because I was useful. I was little, but I could work. I’d been working since my mother and I moved to the brothel. So they decided to keep me. I was a maid and a whipping boy. I was punished when I did something wrong, I was punished when one of the girls was angry, sometimes I was punished for simply existing, for looking like my mother.”

He remembered the traces on her back, and wished all those who dared put their hands to her a long, painful death, and an even painful eternity.

“I tried to escape, but they always found me, always brought me back. The punishments were even harsher when they brought me back.” She took a shuddering breath. “Then the looks started. Some of the patrons started looking at me like they’d looked at my mother, and the owner used that to keep me from running. She promised to give me to them if I tried to escape again. I didn’t. Then one day she decided I was old enough to earn my keep like my mother had done.”

He felt as if he was locked in ice. “How old were you?”

“Five.”

Bile rose in his throat. They’d wanted to prostitute a five-year-old?! He wanted to kill someone, preferably the woman who’d wanted to sell a child. He had to clear his throat a couple of times, before he was able to speak. “What happened?” How did she get out of there? How did she end up with the Buckinghams?

“That part of the whispers is true. The Duke of Buckingham bought me.”

He gritted his teeth. How could the man—

“Someone must have told him.” She shrugged. “I don’t know, he never told me, and I never asked, but somehow he ended up in the brothel and bought me. Paid quite well, actually. Surprised the owner so much, she didn’t have time to ask for more.” She let her arms drop to her sides, relaxing. “He took me home to his country estate to meet his wife and son, and I ran away that first night. But there’s nowhere you can go in the middle of nowhere in Leicestershire, so they found me rather quickly. I was waiting for punishment, but he merely sat me down by the hearth, fed me soup, then Lady Mary gave me a bath herself, and out me to bed.” She sighed. “I tried to run every night for the next few weeks, but they brought me back over and over again. And over and over again, instead of beating me, they sat me down, warmed me up, fed me, bathed me. They never hurt me, they made me feel—”

“At home,” he finished softly.

She nodded. “Yes. At home. They didn’t make me work, tried to prevent me from helping around the house, on the estate. Robert taught me how to ride, Lady Mary taught me to dance and embroider, though I’m rubbish at both.”

Aramis grinned.

“And the Duke taught me to defend myself. I finally trusted him then.”

Aramis understood. She’d been waiting for something bad to happen, for her to suffer the same fate as her mother, for the Duke to claim what he bought. And the only way she could trust him, believe he wouldn’t hurt her, was for him to teach her how to defend herself. He had to admire the man. He’d rescued a child from a fate worse than death, brought her to his home, educated her, kept her safe. “Did he adopt you?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. One day he just told me that he’d given me his name, that I was theirs, that we were a family. It was my sixth birthday.”

And what better gift for a child who’d only known grief and hardship until then.

“I’ve been a Hamilton-Burke ever since.” She looked at him, utterly composed. “Now you know.”

He nodded. “Now I know.”

“So?”

He smiled, his heart bleeding for her. “Those who judge you, and your brother, based on rumours and gossip are idiots. I’m no idiot, Alexandra.” He stepped closer to her. “What happens to us, life shapes us all. Yours shaped you into the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met.”

She scoffed and he cupped her cheeks. “You’re beautiful inside and out, Alexandra Hamilton-Burke. You’re a brave, smart, confident, resilient woman who can fence like a musketeer and has a mean right hook.”

She laughed, blushing slightly. He’d never before seen her blush. It was a heartwarming sight. “I’m all that?”

“All that and more.” He brushed his thumbs along her cheeks, and kissed her.


« Previous chapter | Next chapter »

0 comments