Happily Never After

Annabelle Hearst is just another person in the Headow kingdom, ruled by the Tomlinson family. Pressured by his father the king, Prince Louis is searching for a bride, a wife to make him a heir. He stumbles into Annabelle, one of the few who doesn't venerate the royal family. Can he convince her to come to the live the royal life with him willingly, or will he have to force her into it?

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13. Exhibition

“Rise and shine princess,” Louis states, pulling the sheets off my body. I grimace and curl into a ball, not liking the breeze of fresh air on my skin. “Love... Wake up!” he persists, his voice barely above a whisper.

I open my eyes, turning to look outside the window.

“Louis, it’s not even dawn yet,” I mumble tiredly, hugging my arms to myself.

“I know! That’s why it’s so perfect,” he continues, whispering.

I grumble incomprehensibly.

“Annabelle, I’m doing this for you, please wake up and get dressed,” he sighs.

I frown, sitting up. “What are we even doing?” I huff.

“Shhh not so loud,” he begs, shutting his eyes briefly before taking a deep breath. His blue eyes meet mine. “We’re going to the clearing in the woods alright? To practice your speech for this afternoon.”

My eyes grow.

“Yeah okay,” I nod. He beams.

“You take care of getting dressed, I’ll saddle the horses alright?” he says, turning around.

“Wait!” I stop him. “What do you want me to wear?”

“Whatever you wish: we’ll be back at the castle before my father wakes up,” he informs. “There’s a pile of comfortable clothes at the far end of my closet,” he adds, before stepping outside his room quietly.

Taking a deep breath, I stand up; the soft padding of my feet resonating on the floor is the only sound that can be heard as I walk to his closet. I step inside and head to the back of the small room. As I reach the back, all I can see is series of suit and ties lined up neatly one after the other. I rummage around, searching for the said pile of comfortable clothes.

“Where are they?” I grumble, finding nothing. All I find are Louis’s clothes for every imaginable occasion.

When Louis comes back, I'm still empty handed.

“So are you ready?” he enquires softly. “Why aren't you dressed?” he frowns, looking at me up and down.

“I couldn't find the clothes,” I respond, looking down at myself.

He huffs in annoyance, moving his suits to the side to reveal a small chest. He opens the chest and pulls out trousers and a shirt, giving them to me.

“Do you need help getting dressed?” he enquires sarcastically.

“I'll be fine,” I respond, slightly taken aback by his anger.

“I hope so because we don't have all day Annabelle. I'm doing this for you,” he ends, irritated. “I'll be waiting in the stables. Please hurry.”

“Okay,” I wave him off. As soon as he's gone, I struggle out of my nightgown and into the casual clothes as quickly as I can before striding downstairs and out to the stables without making a sound.

Louis is brushing Paris’ mane as I step inside the wooden structure. He briefly turns to look at me.

“You didn't think of proper footwear?” he questions, shifting his gaze from my feet to the horse. “There are boots in the back.”

Sighing, I walk to the back and grab the smallest pair I can find, before slipping them on.

“Happy?” I enquire, returning to him.

“I could be happier,” he grumbles, handing me Paris’ reigns.

“I’m not riding side-saddle―?”

“Do you want to ride side-saddle?” He huffs.

“No.”

“Well stop complaining. I told you, my father isn’t supposed to be up by the time we return,” he exhales, grabbing Mystique’s reigns. “Although because you’ve been taking your sweet time, I doubt we should even risk doing this,” he adds.

 I purse my lips and follow him as he leads his horse out of the stables, caressing Paris’ muzzle.

“Do you need help mounting or―?” he questions.

“I got this,” I shake my head, standing beside Paris. I turn myself so I’m facing away from Louis. Holding the reigns tightly with my left hand, I put my left foot in the stirrup and then bring my right hand to the pommel of the saddle. I briefly shut my eyes, taking a deep breath before jumping and hoisting myself up. Making sure my right leg stays well above the horse’s back, I turn my body so it faces towards the horse’s head, sliding my other foot in the right stirrup as I sit in the saddle.

Louis stares at me as I gain balance on Paris’ back before mounting Mystique himself.

“Let’s go,” he huffs, urging his horse into a rapid gallop without adding anything else.

Caressing my horse’s neck once, I hastily drive him to follow behind Louis and Mystique. My hair whips in my face as my stallion runs steadily against the wind. We plunge into the trees at a swift pace, heading towards the clearing we visited yesterday. I savour the sense of freedom horseback riding procured as we dash through endless greenery, away from the rest of the world. Even if I know it won’t last, I inhale deeply and appreciate it while I have it.

Louis jumps off his horse and removes her bridle, letting lie beside a tree. When he stretches out his arms for me to jump into, I don’t hesitate, pushing myself off Paris’ back and into his open arms. His eyes meet mine as he sets me on my feet on the ground.

“Thank you,” I mumble quietly as Louis rids Paris of his bridle, putting it with Mystique’s. He doesn’t say anything. “You’re angry after me,” I state.

He stays silent, walking to the weeping willow beside the river before plopping down to a sitting position, his features twisted into a scowl.

“Louis please,” I try but he holds his hand up.

“Annabelle, a princess doesn’t whine,” he states.

“I thought you didn’t care what we did here,” I huff, placing my hands on my hips.

“I don’t. But some habits still need to be broken,” he declares, looking at the two horses drinking by the river.

I look at him longly as he brings his knees to his chest like a frustrated teenager.

“Louis what did I do wrong this time?” I ask calmly, taking a seat beside him.

“Time, Annabelle, is very precious,” he starts.

“I know―”

“Please don’t interrupt,” he shuts his eyes. “Time means everything to me alright? From the second I was born, every single minute of my life has been practically counted. Every single thing is planned beforehand, my father always there to dictate my every move and word. So this period of time,” he says, motioning around, “that we have right now, is really the only time I have for myself. Usually I spend it with my mother, but exceptionally I’m spending it on you today. I’m spending it on you because I think you need to practice today’s speech in order to be comfortable with it.”

“Yes―”

“But you practically jeopardized the whole thing this morning when you took your time getting dressed. There’s a reason I woke you up early Annabelle, and it wasn’t for you to stand around snooping in my closet. My father’s personal guards wake up precisely at dawn, shifting with the ones who’re on night duty. That shift lasts precisely 3 minutes and 43 seconds: the time needed to head down to the stables without raising interrogations,” he elaborates. “I had to get Zayn to distract them while you joined me outside because you weren’t quick enough to put clothes on,” he snaps, irritated. “Do you see what you did wrong?”

I take a deep breath, looking at my hands.

“My father has no idea I’ve been doing this for the last five years and I’d like to keep it this way. I thought you’d understand the importance of listening to what I say after last night’s revelations,” he huffs.

A pang of guilt hits me.

“I’m sorry Louis,” I start. “I tried to be quick I swear! I just couldn’t find the clothes and I didn’t want to show up in a dress either so I just... I don’t know I froze, not knowing what to do,” I explain, grimacing. “And I know that’s not a good reason but it’s all I’ve got unfortunately. I’m really, really sorry, for putting this much pressure on you when you’re trying to help me,” I say honestly.

He sighs and shuts his eyes, his shoulders slumping slightly as he nods.

“I accept your apology Annabelle,” he breathes out softly, his eyes meeting mine. “But maybe next time you can be a little, I really do mean a little, more independent? I’m pretty certain you fell across some of my own clothes that you could’ve worn for this,” he says.

“And maybe next time you can be a little more precise?” I propose. “You did say the back of the closet: you didn’t mention anything about moving suits and opening a chest,” I point out.

“Is this how it’s going to go then?” Louis questions, looking at me, a faint smile drawing itself on his lips. “We ask for small modifications in one’s way of acting every once in a while?”

“Why not?” I shrug. “If you really want this to work,” I begin, motioning the both of us, “then we’re going to have to make several minor corrections on our behaviours.”

“Indeed we are,” he chuckles, his gaze momentarily returning on the horses before they meet mine once more in worry. “But Annabelle I really did mean a little more independent alright? I know you can be resourceful when you want to,” he goes on.

I nod.

“So. The speech,” he starts, reaching into his trousers. He pulls out a folded piece of parchment and hands it to me.

I look at the cursive writing, reading hastily between the lines before looking back up at Louis.

“Did you write this?” I question. “These words have a lot of... depth and passion,” I declare, choosing my words carefully.

“I didn’t write that, no,” he shakes his head. “My mother did, about two weeks ago. She wants you to end up Princess of Headow just as much as I do.”

“Why? She doesn’t even know me,” I frown, looking at the neat writing once more in awe.

“I do speak to her about you so she isn’t completely oblivious of your presence...” he trails on. “And if you’re not accepted as a princess by the kingdom, let’s just say the consequences aren’t pleasant for nobody but my father.”

“What are the consequences?”

“They’re not important Annabelle because you’ll be accepted,” he ends quickly. “So. Speeches. First off: they’re done standing straight. So stand up in front of me, and pretend you’re in front of a crowd,” he instructs.

Shaking my head, I do as asked and stand, shoulders and back straight as my eyes lock onto his.

“Good,” he smiles.

Helplessness and anxiety take over me as I try imagining talking in front of the people of Headow.

“Are you at ease with crowds?” he enquires suddenly, undoubtly noticing my shaking knees and trembling hands on the parchment.

I shake my head no, looking at my feet. Never had I liked being the center of attention. I’d always loathed presenting in class, I can’t even imagine in front of the whole population of Headow. My heart lurches at the thought.

“Annabelle,” Louis murmurs. I look up. My breath hitches as I realise he’s inches from me. His hands cup my face. “It’s going to be alright, okay? You’re not going to be alone up there.”

“I’m not?” I whisper.

“I’ll be right beside you, holding your hand if you want me to,” he mumbles, his piercing eyes seemingly looking right through my own. For a fraction of a second, I think he’s going to bend down and kiss me, but he pulls away.

“Relax alright? Think about something soothing.”

“Like what?”

“Visualize your speech as an activity you like to do,” he proposes. “Just pretend they’re the same.”

I picture talking to the crowd to be just like sewing a very complicated article of clothing. Difficult, stressing, yet totally worth the result. My whole body loosens as the calm I experience while sewing invades me.

“There you go,” Louis approves. “Now, first step is getting their attention. That first phrase; it’s needs to be said clearly, with intensity and conviction. A fierce beginning and a striking ending make the best speeches.”

I purse my lips, looking at the first sentence. It’s has that exact strength Louis’ taking about. I doubt I can say it right.

“I’m not going to be able to do this....How did she even know what to write?” I mutter, discouraged.

“Because she wasn’t a royal at birth either, she had to make a speech for this too so she knew what the people wanted to hear.”

“Queen Joannah wasn’t a royal?” I frown.

“No. She was the daughter of a milkman. So every single time you say you don’t fit in, that you have difficulty applying royal procedures, I know it’s only a matter of time love.”

“How did she end up with your father?” I pry, curious. “If she was the milkman’s daughter―”

“This is a story for another time. Right now, we have to practice your speech as many times as possible before the whole castle wakes up,” he deflects smoothly.

 

*****

 

My palms are sweaty, my breathing is uneven. The buzzing of the assembly can be heard from behind the doors separating us from the balcony where I was to make my speech. I want to throw up. Even my dress seems to be suffocating me.

“Louis what if I mess it up?” I ask shakily, looking into the Prince’s eyes with worry.

“You won’t mess it up, princess. You know what you have to say,” he reassures. “And if you forget, you can always improvise. I know you can do this,” he persists.

I wince as I hear the king make an introduction.

“People of Headow!” he booms, acquiring their attention very quickly. “You are all gathered here today for the Exhibition of Annabelle Hearst, a peasant my son has deemed worthy of his love.”

I grimace just as Louis stiffens beside me.

“As you all know, because she isn’t a royal by blood, you are the ones who can come to a decision on if she deserves her royal title or not. I personally believe a young girl who lives in a farm that’s falling apart on the edge of the kingdom does not deserve that title. But that’s just my humble opinion.”

“Louis he’s getting them against me,” I say, breaking. His hands clench into fists but he doesn’t reply.

“If you wish to make a poor girl your next princess, the one who’ll be responsible for the relationships with the other kingdoms and the wellbeing of your community, then go ahead and be my guests. It’s your decision.”

I start crying.

“Louis how am I supposed to do this now?!” I demand, voice shattering. “If the king doesn’t want me, no one would dare to go against him!”

“He can influence the people, but he can’t make the decision for them. It’s all down to you Annabelle,” Louis shakes his head, frustration present on his features. He turns to look at me, his thumbs wiping my tears. “Strong Annabelle. Fierce. Those are the key words,” he mumbles as the doors open for Louis and I to go through.

“Louis,” I plea before going on the balcony. “I’m not going to be able to do this.”

“I believe you are Annabelle. You’re a fighter. A white light in the desert. You can do this,” he persists, his fingers intertwining with mine. “I know you can.”

All too soon, I have to walk up to the little stage where the king had previously stood. I gulp nervously, looking down from the balcony at the sea of people staring back up at me.

I wipe my clammy palms on my cream coloured dress, my heart rate accelerating unhealthily. Hushed conversations start below as I still keep quiet, not ready to speak just yet.

“Come on Annabelle,” Louis whispers in my ear, his fingers sliding into mine.

I clear my throat.

“Citizens of Headow,” I begin confidently. The buzzing of their voices stop. Words catch in my throat as I realize I don’t remember the Queen’s speech. My eyes grow big and I turn to look at Louis, stress suddenly suffocating me. His hand squeezes mine, his eyes urging me to go on.

I try calming myself to empty my mind just like in the clearing, but the idea of sewing isn’t as soothing as earlier. I start panicking, my hands releasing Louis’s to clench and unclench nervously. But then my mother’s voice echoes in my mind.

“I’m with you Belle. You’ve got this,” she whispers in my head.

I nod determinedly, speaking up once more just as the voices resume talking. I completely forget about the queen’s speech, going with my gut.

“Citizens of Headow,” I repeat. “I present myself to you all today as one of you. Because that’s who I really am,” I continue, pausing to take a deep breath. “What the king said about me is nothing but the truth: I used to be poor. I used to live in a house that is falling apart. I used to dig in my pockets for change in order to buy food for my family. But not too long ago, Fate has decided to change my life,” I pause, looking briefly at Louis. “And I’m going to be honest and risk sounding weak here, but I was terrified. I was confused and lost and as I still am all of those as I speak. But I’m here no?” I state, letting my statement hang for a few seconds. “I believe that what won’t kill me will only help me overcome greater challenges. People of Headow, I’m willing to help you. I’m willing to help you get to your feet and stand tall.” The crowd stirs beneath me, muttering amongst themselves. “Yes it’s not always easy to stand up. Trust me, I know from experience,” I declare, my gaze flying across the mass of faces. “But with the help of an extended hand, it’s much easier. I want to be that helping hand. A helping hand that doesn’t look at you from above, but as equals. Because according to the king, that’s what we are. I believe His Majesty is right. Populace of Headow, this is my Exhibition. I am a young woman who will undoubtly make mistakes, but will always learn from them. Do you want me as your princess?” I end firmly, the last three lines being the only part of the queen’s speech.

There’s a brief moment of silence before the people explode into roars of agreement, applauding noisily. I feel liberated as the cheers echo through the air. They barely die down as the king attempts to speak in order to finish the ceremony.

“Do you―”

Loud shouts cut him off. He loses his cool.

“HEADOW!” he booms, the vein on his neck pulsing. Silence finally strikes. “Do you accept Annabelle Hearst as princess of Headow?!” he bellows angrily.

There’s a loud rumble of acknowledging yells.

“I did it,” I murmur, taken aback. As I raise my hand to wave, I’m pulled backwards and off the balcony.

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