Chapter One

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to similarly named places or to persons living or deceased is unintentional.

Copyright February Grace 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Copyright Booktrope 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Cover Design: Ida Jansson

Copy Editor: Jennifer Gracen

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For every soul whose heart defies the limits of their body.

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CHAPTER ONE

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Gather around one and all, and see an ancient tale reborn.

A story so alive and vital, it has lived since time immemorial. No one really knows exactly where it began, or where it will end.

It is a story that has great impact upon those with attentive hearts; those who comprehend its meaning and realize that there is more to life, love, and happiness than simply ever after.

Read on, and see if you are among them.

It begins as so many others have before... with four simple words.

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Once upon a time in a faraway land, a call went out across the hills. It echoed through the valleys and over the streams, and the royal guard did not cease in their assigned duty until every household in the kingdom had been reached with an engraved invitation.

There was to be a grand ball at the palace, in honor of the Prince. Every maiden who was eligible for marriage in the entire land was commanded, by royal decree, to attend.

The ball was a bright, sumptuous affair with feasting and song. When it was time for the Prince to choose his dance partners for the evening, young ladies-with fluttering nerves and hope in their hearts-were lined up against the wall and divided into two groups.

A small number was selected from the first gathering; the rest were sent to console themselves, and each other, against a wall lined by towering pillars of chocolates embossed with the Prince's fine silhouette.

The second group scarcely made it to the center of the polished, gleaming marble floor before there was a stir of commotion in the room. An angelic girl with golden hair appeared, wearing a dress the shade of a pure summer sky. As she was escorted in, all assembled began to ripple and part like the surface of a lake in her wake.

The Prince took one look at her and whispered to his attendant. The man nodded, moved beyond the second group of bridal hopefuls, and led the young blonde woman gently by the hand to be introduced, directly, to the Prince.

The King called for a waltz to be played. As the music swelled, everyone stood transfixed, awed by what was taking place.

Murmurs swirled all around as it seemed obvious the Prince had instantly, as if by magic, found his future bride.

This is not her story.

This is, in part, the story of the girl who was (by her own count) number sixty-four out of a hundred in the second group of young women called to see if one among them would meet with the Prince's approval.

"Thank you, you are all dismissed," Grand Duke Frederick announced, to many tearful women among the former hopefuls. Slowly they began to disperse, drying their eyes and seeking out the comfort of their mothers' arms.

All, save number sixty-four.

That girl shook her head and held it high, taking in the shimmering flames and sparkling crystal of the chandeliers, the sound of people whispering, and the lush harmonies of the grand orchestra, still playing as the Prince danced his new love interest right out the back doors of the ballroom and into the garden beyond.

That was all she needed to see.

She straightened her shoulders, stood tall, and returned to her seat at the table where she'd mostly poked at her food, too anxious to eat much. She gathered up her shawl and small handbag.

"Leaving so soon, My Lady?" A young footman asked, as he held a large door open for her.

"The party is over, as far as I can tell."

"Are you certain? They're still dancing in there," he called after her, but she didn't stop to look back.

"Thank you for a lovely evening," she answered, and then she made her way through the grand foyer and down the seemingly endless steps leading to the courtyard.

She walked quite a distance, until she reached the stables. Her faithful horse was waiting there, tied up. And at least, she hoped, enjoying a feast of apples and sugar for having brought her so far for what turned out to be no reason at all.

"Hello, boy, did you have a good time?" For a moment she buried her face in his mane. She gulped back a lump in her throat along with the threat of tears; she would be damned if she would cry over missing out on a dance with a man she never even got to see up close.

The horse whinnied in response and she patted his back. "Good. But it's time for us to go home. We've a long way to ride before we get there."

Under moonlit skies she made her way over the hills, through the countryside, and up into the small mountain village where she'd been born. On most nights it would have been dangerous to take such a trip alone for fear of robbers, but tonight, so many families were making the journey as well, she was never really alone for long.

Once she reached her family's tiny abode, she opened the creaky old door as gently as she could. If habit prevailed, her parents would have dozed off by the fire while awaiting her return.

Indeed they had, and she reached down to silence the insistent meowing of her beloved, elderly cat before kneeling beside him.

The cat, completely blind and nearly deaf, was older than she could remember. She cradled him in her arms, petting his favorite spot between his ears as he meowed at her again, almost in question.

"No, no dance for me," she mumbled. Her mother stirred in her sleep, her rocking chair groaning as she moved before finally settled back into dreaming. "No dance, I... I didn't even get to say hello. So many of us never got to say hello."

The girl sighed and wondered what would become of the Prince and his future Princess. Mostly she wondered what would become of her now that her own royal dreams, fleeting though they had been, were dashed.

She was not the girl that His Royal Highness chose at the ball... nor did she come from a family of wealth and privilege.

She was a regular maiden from a humble place, and she was called Charlotte.

This is not her story, alone.

It is, in whole, a tale of surprise and revelation: one that shows you never know what matters most, or who you really are, until all things in your world are tested.

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