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A Nativity scene; 25th morning [open]- Xmas 1677

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Central Drawing Room

The room is decorated in a rich burgundy, the chairs and settees scattered around in small groupings matching the décor. There are no windows in the room, so the light is supplied by a large chandelier, which is reflected off several mirrors strategically placed about the room. Servants circulate about the room, ready to fetch any drink that one may require, from tea to wine to brandy.


Although staying within the warm covers on a chilly Christmas Morning was very appealing, Nicolette arose early with an little plan upon her mind, a Christmas activity she hoped might be interesting and fun for those attending the room that morning. In the crook of her arm her wicker basket, usually the resting place of various cuttings found upon her excursions, today held a held a light load nestled in straw and covered with a lace doily.


The petite woman was carefully dressed in one of her new winter gowns, a velvet in dark mauve, it's sleeves long although with cut reveals at the round of her shoulders. It was prettily trimmed at wrists and neckline with detailing of embroidered silver bells, while at her throat was tied a mauve ribbon she also wore the double Huguenot cross she'd been given.


Arriving to the drawing room, she was pleased to see she was the first to arrive. Immediately she set about hiding the little figurines, well most of them. A donkey his here, a sheep over there, a crook-holding shepherd over there & so on. Baby Jesus she hid on her person, and in her pocket she kept Joseph and Mary to covertly give to playful minded friends should they arrive.


Finally she moved to a centre table, and spreading out the doily she positioned the ceramic stable, a handful of straw and finally the wooden cradle (empty).


Feeling quite pleased with herself, at this, her first ever attempt to make a game for the English, Nicolette asked for a servant to bring some eggnog.

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Nell Gwynn stepped into the drawing room, hoping to get a cup of tea before heading back to her house in Chelsea. Her reasons for taking a stroll in the gardens on Christmas morning were her own, but she planned on spending the rest of the day with her sons. The cold winter wind had seeped into her bones and she needed to warm up a bit before making the long journey home. A cup of tea or two would probably do the trick, and since it was Christmas, she doubted she would run into anyone who might question her presence. Not that it mattered. She had never cared much what other people thought of her, particularly those high and mighty toffs who thought that she was beneath them.


The only toff she had ever actually been beneath was the King. And occasionally, he'd been beneath her.


Blinking to adjust her eyes to the light, she noticed a young dark-haired lady standing in front of a table. Nell had seen her before but she didn't know her name. Did she not have family to spend Christmas with? Or did she, too, have reasons of her own to be here?


The former actress approached her in her no-nonsense way. “Merry Christmas,” she said, her eyes falling to the empty stable and cradle on the table. “Oy! Who stole the figures? They didn't walk out on their own.”

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Time ticked by, with the chiming of some distant clock as distant monitor. It was very quiet in the room. Which was not to say Nicolette let the lovely eggnog go to waste. Three cups she'd had already, and was feeling rather good, when a lady arrived. At last!


Looking towards her Nicci smiled, and then laughed of the declaration. It was such a frank verdict, and in most circumstances perfectly true. "The creatures of Christmas day are hiding, wanting to be discovered." her eyes glinted, but then she gave a sigh of mock-forlorn, "La, like His Majesties people - will they not come to the Palace today? I did not know the tradition." She explained, her french accent might confirm that detail.


But for all of her Frenchess, the national trait of Arrogance seemed to be missing - for as she spoke Nicolette picked up a glass cup and poured a measure of eggnog into it. "This, for you Lady Nell." (She'd be a feeble courtier to not recognize each of the Kings Mistresses on sight!) "I am Mistress Nicolette Vauquelin." and she dipped a curtsy, for despite the fact that Nell was of common birth Nicolette allowed a sovereignty to her station. Arising her eyes were bright and curious, "but you have not heard of me, yes?"

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Nell took no offense at the woman's laughter. She had enjoyed making people laugh when she had performed comical roles and she valued a good sense of humor. And her comment had been rather funny, if she said so herself.


When the girl spoke, Nell fought the urge to wince. A Frenchwoman. She wasn't fond of the French, mostly because of her bitter rivalry with that idiot Portsmouth. That woman deserved nothing but contempt and she wished that she would go back where she came from before her endless tears flooded London and swept it away.


This French toff didn't seem to have a stick up her arse, though. And apparently she was responsible for the missing figures. “You hid them?” she asked. Nell had to admit that it was a mischievous thing to do. “Why'd you do that?”


As for courtiers visiting the palace on Christmas day, she shrugged. “It's early. I'm sure there'lll be people around later in the day.” To her, nobles slept entirely too late. She was usually up at the break of dawn, even if she'd been out late the night before.


Mistress Vauquelin handed her a glass of eggnog, which Nell accepted with a grateful “Thanks, love.” It wasn't hot but the liquor in it should warm her up quite nicely. A loud peal of laughter was her response to the way the Frenchwoman addressed her with a curtsy.


“I ain't no lady,” she said with a grin, which she assumed Nicolette was well aware of, considering that she knew who she was. She had been given deference before, usually by those who wanted some kind of favor. Flattery didn't work on Nell Gwynn. She was far too practical and grounded in reality.


“Should I have heard of you?” she asked curiously. Was this pretty girl somebody of importance at court? Anything was possible if a lowly orange girl could become a mistress of a King.

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"They are mine to hide" Nicolette thought to clarify as Nell continued her assumption that the Nativity Collection was property of the King. "Well, of my cousins really." and she gave another laugh and smile. People did get serious quickly, Nicolette hoped to offset this with a light attitude. "It is a game, it is for fun. Though when you had to explain that something was fun, usually meant it was an utter failure of being so. Ah well.


Nell thought it a hoot that Nicci curtsied to her, and the title lady brought her outright denial. "Your sons are Lords, your lover the King, if there is anyone who might have an honorary title of Lady it is you." Nicolette claimed. "La, but if you do not want to be a Lady, what do you call yourself then?"


"Ah ha, no you should not have heard of me." Nells reply was an answer enough. So the King had not mentioned Nicolette to her, nor had any other gossips she supposed. The French girl was hunting for clues, any clue, that she was not forgotten. So far there was none. Still, that did not mean, well did not necessarily mean, her hopes were all naught. She had one hope, that one hope she had to cling to.


"I am, like you have at the theater, the people who are in the background of the scenes, the people that watch the stars and marvel." she drew a breath and then let it go. "Not many become stars like you. Tell me please, of your story."


Nicolette was truly interested to know what had set Nell apart, what had attracted the King to her. Perhaps she could learn from her?

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Nell had indeed thought that the nativity scene belonged to the palace. Apparently, Mistress Vauquelin had brought it herself and had hidden the figures because of some sort of game. Had she done it on a dare? Was that the game she spoke of? Or had she asked if people were coming to the palace because she hoped that they would want to search for them? Hiding them sounded like fun. Seeking them didn't. Perhaps she should have brought the children with her. They might have enjoyed rummaging around for them.


The Frenchwoman had a curious, though rather charming, way with words. She had probably not been in London long. Was she staying with relatives here? Or had she come by herself? She was no teenage debutante. Maybe she had just wanted a change of scenery. Or perhaps she was running from something ... or someone.


Nell chuckled when Nicolette explained why she had called her a lady. “Most people who call me a lady want something from me,” she said, watching the girl carefully for any sign that she wished for some sort of favor, even as she grinned mischievously. “And no, I have no desire to be one. I'm quite happy the way I am, thank you very much.”


So this French lady wasn't somebody important who expected everyone to know who she was. Instead, she claimed to be a simple courtier who admired those who had achieved success at court. Again, the woman flattered her and again, it didn't work. What did Mistress Vauquelin really want? To gain popularity at court herself? Nell, couldn't really blame her for that. Most people weren't content to stay in the background for long.


Nell took a long swig of eggnog. “You already told my story when you explained why you called me a lady. There ain't much more than that.” She didn't like talking about herself. Other people were far more interesting. “And what's your story, Mistress Vauquelin? Are you content to observe the stars or do you long to be one?”

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Underwhelmed, perhaps that was the word to use for Nell's impression of Nicci's Xmas game. Nell said nothing about it at all.


"That is the way of all courtiers, they diligently attend to those with power." Nicc tried defend herself as Nell judged her harshly for her flatttery, 'Don't you like that role? You can realise dreams, or dash peoples hopes at will." Nell knew all this already, and was dashing Nicci's overtures towards friendship. Nicolette tried keep her smile, but it was difficult under the circumstances.


... I'm quite happy the way I am, thank you very much."


From one extreme to the other, now Nell was implying Nicolette had insulted her. It just went from bad to worse. With a breath caught she replied, "I did not mean to imply differently."


"Then your story is only a sentence," she replied, trying to school her breath, hide her upset at failing the conversation. It was just awful. "And here I hoped it was a Novel." but Nell had no interest in talking to Nicolette, that much was plain.


"We all want to be stars, but most of us never shall." Her initial optimism at having company had been quickly snuffed out as Nell continued to take objection to her. "Excusi, I shall take these away then," she dipped a smaller bob that time (since Nell professed not to like deference), and then picked up her basket.


The memories of how last season had ended rolled back on in. When nobody had trusted her, everyone had plotted against her. Those memories she'd tried to forget rolled like a tidal wave back in.


What on earth had she been thinking to hold out a hope? There was no hope. Nell was typical of all of England, with their default setting of distrust and veiled hatred. "If you distrust anyone who talks to you nicely, if you scorn everyone who makes an effort to learn who you are, you will die bitter and lonely." Nicolette's voice quavered as she turned to leave.

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Nell often came across as brash without intending to. She had never liked the way toffs sugar coated their words so not to insult anybody. A spade was a spade. Why call it anything else? She was actually trying to be friendly to Nicolette, but she could tell that the Frenchwoman was becoming offended by her frank way of speaking. Maybe it had something to do with the language barrier? Or were all Frenchwomen like Portsmouth? She did hope that Mistress Vauquelin didn't burst into tears.


“It ain't my way, love,” she told her. “I'd rather give people hope than ruin their dreams.” She had helped people out here and there when she could. Some courtiers had unrealistic goals and she tried to let them down gently.


Her mischievous grin had been an attempt to let Nicolette know that she wasn't insulting her by saying 'thank you very much.' In truth, she had meant it in a humorous way. But the girl didn't take it that way, and Nell now wondered if she had been determined to dislike her the moment she walked through the door.


Or was it the other way around? Was Nell unintentionally lumping her in with Portsmouth just because she was French? She didn't want to alienate this young woman. Making enemies of anybody at court wasn't wise. You never knew who would rise in popularity and influence. Or who would fall. Nell didn't want to be one of the latter.


“No offense taken,” she replied, smiling warmly.


As for stories: “Everyone's life can be summed up in a sentence. Or it can be expanded into a novel. I prefer not to talk too much about myself. It bores people. If you want to find out more about me, ask anyone you know. Their descriptions of my life will probably be more entertaining than my own.”


Nell did want to talk to Nicolette, but she was more interested in learning about her than reiterating a tale that everybody already knew. The Frenchwoman seemed upset now, though, picking up her basket and turning away. Her parting remark revealed what she thought Nell was doing, which couldn't be further from the truth.


“And if you think everyone is insulting you when they're trying to be friendly, so will you.” Nell knocked back the rest of her eggnog and poured two more cups. “Come back in here and have a cup of eggnog." She held one of them out. "How about we start over?”

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Perhaps Nicci's remark made an impact on Nell, or perhaps the one time actress had a knack for reading people? Nell softened, and became more talkative, less critical.


Nicolette halted her exit, and looked back at the woman. "Well they say you are clever." Nicolette continued upon her plain-speaking vein, "however you don't appreciate that others might like to hear your real story. I would never consider court gossip to be inaccurate account of anyone's life story. Why look at me, it is put about that I am a spy. Pfft. There. That is what you could have heard about me Mistress Gwynn, that and also that the King laughed at a joke or two that I told last summer. Ha, and perhaps that since then I have dreamed that I might have a story like yours."




"But I am one of these people you mention, the ones who delude themselves."


Nicolette drew a breath. She certainly did not want to be like Portsmouth, but her lack of real foundations left her feeling very vulnerable. The only gentleman actually interested in her had been Lord Maldon, and he'd told her she was not marriage material.


Giving a sigh she refilled her cup and returned to the settee. "I am sorry I was... oversensitive. I have been hoping many months I might one day meet you, and, it seemed like you judged me as poorly as everyone else. No-one trusts the French, they think we all lie, they dont like how we traditionally flatter, they don't like our clothes, our voices. If we smile, they are suspicious, if we cry, they hate that too. Ha. But you probably know better than anyone how it feels to be 'barely tolerated'. I dare say the aristocrats at court don't approve of you one bit."


It was not the conversation she'd imagined. Lifting her cup to Nell she toasted plainly, "Merry Christmas." having abandoned her earlier 'show' of cheer. While Nell thought that Nicci had been trying to deceive her by acting like she had earlier, truth was, Nicci needed to deceive herself with trying to be happy.

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Nell took a gulp of eggnog as Mistress Vauquelin turned back around. Well, that was good. The French were the most sensitive people she knew. They took everything personally and couldn't laugh about themselves. The former actress took very few things seriously, because few things truly were.


Yes, she supposed she was clever, at least clever enough to be suspicious of anyone who just walked up and asked for her life story. Most people were more subtle and she would have thought a Frenchwoman would be even more so, due to their propensity for meaningless flattery. This one, though, knew how to speak frankly, which Nell did appreciate.


So the King had laughed at a few of Nicolette's jokes and now she wanted her story to be similar to Nell's. Did that mean she had designs upon His Majesty? Was the reason she had asked her to talk about herself to figure out what the King saw in her? In Nell's opinion, the King didn't need another mistress, much less a Frenchwoman. Of course, if he did take this woman to his bed, he might cast Portsmouth out for good.


But that was none of her business.


“You can't imitate anyone else if you want to move up at court. You have to be yourself or you'll wind up living a lie your whole life. And if you delude yourself, you'll miss opportunities even when they hit you on the head. My rise was nothing more than a series of lucky breaks that I turned to my advantage.”


She chuckled when Nicolette described the English view of the French and of Nell and she returned her toast, although she didn't take a drink quite yet. “You're right. Most people don't approve of me. And you know what I think of that? Fuck'em all!” Now she took a long swig of eggnog. “Let me tell you a secret, love. Don't care what people think. They don't do it very often. Hold your head up high and don't let'em get to you.”

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"Lucky breaks like meeting someone who could help or could hinder you?” Nicolette met Nell's eyes, having asked her a direct question she hoped for a direct reply.


Direct and artless conversation was one of the things that had shocked Nicolette about England when she'd first arrived. Over time she'd come to appreciate that sometimes there was advantage to it, but for the most part it seemed so plebeian. Still, Nicolette tried to confirm to English ways.


Hearing Nell swear was a relief.


The use of a descriptive and colorful word filling the adjective-less void. "Yes fuck them." She readily agreed. Nell might hate flowery flattery, but instead decorated her conversation with profanity.


"I credit people with too much you think?" Nicolette considered Nell's advice that people rarely thought about what they said. "Their tongues are rags flapping in the wind." Nicolette gave a limp smile at that.

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“Well, meeting somebody who can help you is lucky. Meeting someone who hinders you is not unless you can find a way to win them over. Frankly, I don't even try. If they don't like me, the loss ain't mine. And as soon as you see an opportunity, you need to grab it. If you hesitate, it will fly out of your reach.” Didn't everyone know these things? Perhaps this Frenchwoman had been sheltered all of her life. In Nell's opinion, toffs didn't have as much common sense as commoners. Maybe that was why they were called commoners.


“That's the spirit!” Nell exclaimed when Mistress Vauquelin repeated her curse. “Tongues flapping in the wind is a good way to put it. If you get upset, then that means they win. Don't let them win. Ignore them. Most courtiers insult others because it makes them feel better about themselves. Or they just like spreading gossip. Hell, I wish I'd done some of the things people say I did. The life they give me is more exciting than my own.”

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"Though like you said, when starting out you were keen to look for opportunity. Opportunity does not mean snubbing people." Nicolette replied. She was disappointed that Nell had no seen the point she was trying to make, that Nell was one such person, one who could assist or hinder her. Or perhaps Nell did realise that, and simply did not which to acknowledge it. "It is easier to not give a toss if people hate you, when you are at the top of your game and do not need friends." Nicolette did not have that advantage.


Nell seemed to like the 'fuck them all' attitude, and gave a cheering rally to that mode.


"Hmm." Nicolette looked at her cup of eggnog and then downed the rest, then moved to refill them both.


Well one thing for certain Nicolette was nothing like Mistress Elinor Gwynn. Perhaps the actress would think Nicolette was heeding her advice to not be a duplicate of her.


Nobody ever realised that Nicolette was already working every opportunity she could as hard as she was able, even right now. Nicolette had a regular method of soliciting advice from persons she met, allowing them to 'invest' in her, encouraging their interest into her success. One day when shed risen to the top, there would be a dozen courtiers who would puff their chests with belief that they had been the one who'd made the difference.


"Do you fear the King will tire of you in his bedroom. Or are you his familiar warmth, the one he returns to find comfort with? Variety is the space of life they say, but not for the mainstay, yes?"

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Was this Mistress Vauquelin accusing Nell of snubbing her? If so, that was a first. It was usually other people who snubbed her. Why did the French have to be so fucking sensitive? Or perhaps she wasn't talking about Nell, but those other courtiers she had mentioned earlier who thought she was a spy and found fault with her because of her nationality. “Opportunity can be found anywhere. Even somebody who snubs you can be useful.” She had used Portsmouth's dislike of her to her advantage a few times.


“Everyone needs friends, love. But those who those who hate you ain't worth your time. Ignore them like they don't exist. Worrying about them takes your attention away from grabbing those opportunities that come your way.”


When Nicolette knocked back her eggnog, Nell did the same and held out her mug for a refill. The chill in her bones was nearly gone, thanks to the alcohol-laced drink. One auburn eyebrow rose at the Frenchwoman's next question and she laughed again, grinning and wagging one finger in playful warning.


“Be careful about asking personal questions. Some people find it offensive. Me, I don't mind, but I prefer to keep some things private and you just hit on one of them. Not even my most trusted friends know the answers to those questions.”


She lowered her hand back to her side. “Enough about me. I'd rather hear about what you wish to achieve here at court.” Nell wasn't without influence. She might be one of the opportunities Nicolette was looking for, depending on what it was she was after.

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"Yes, this is my point." Nicolette nodded as they came into agreement. "While one in your position can afford to dismiss others out of hand, in my position it is different. My enemies I must win over, or at least silence them, if I am to get ahead."


It had been difficult to come to this agreed perspective with Nell, Nicolette supposed it was the woman's defensiveness that made it thus. (Nicci had been careful not to compliment Nell again which would have made matters worse!).


A puff of breath. "I did not think you would take offense."


"It is a skill of life to address people individually, how I speak with one is not how I speak with another. La!" she added lightly, "I had wondered if you were master behind the temporariness of His Majesties other ... ahh... flirtations. So obviously my question I asked of you, is not one I would ask of any other?" She looked back to Nell, attentive to her reply.


Nicolette wished to be one of His Majesties flirtations, but she did not want to be a permanent resident in that arena.


Nell asked about her then, information for information was only fair. (Nicolette was not about to reveal more of herself than Nell would, but while Nell was easing her walls Nicolette would do likewise!)


"I have been trying to meet as many person's as I can, and looking for an opportunity to arise, to make my future here in England. I want to stay." Nicolette explained. So far her opportunity had been the King taking a shine to her (which she'd already told Nell about). But who knew, perhaps another opportunity would crop up - it would be nice to have a plan B.

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“It depends on who your enemies are,” Nell advised her. “You only need to win them over if they're important or popular enough that they can hinder your goals. Fuck the rest of them. Show them you don't care and they'll move on to an easier target. Bullies, the lot of them!


“You gotta have a thick skin to survive at court, and an even thicker one to get ahead. You think you have enemies now? Your foes will increase the higher you rise, and they'll be more powerful too. Some may seek to ruin you and send you running back where you came frrom. Making a name for yourself at court ain't all fun and games, love. There's as many disadvantages as there are perks. Even if you have protection, you're not completely safe. Sometimes the people you think are your friends will turn on you if there's something in it for them.”


Nell blinked when Nicolette claimed she would only ask that particular question of her. “You could ask another of His Majesty's mistresses,” she surmised with a shrug. “But be careful. If she takes offense, then you'll have yet another enemy to deal with.” She wondered what Portsmouth would say if she was asked about her relationship with His Majesty. Would she spill everything to a fellow Frenchwoman or would she be as secretive as Nell? Whatever she said, she would cry a river of tears.


So Mistress Vauquelin was ambitious. Nell didn't see her as a threat, so she didn't mind giving her advice. The King laughed at a lot of ladies' jokes, but he didn't sleep with all of them. “You can't expect success to happen overnight. With some people, it comes quickly. With others, it takes many years of effort. You have to be clever and diligent, the kind of person who never gives up.”


She took another swig of eggnog. “Why must you make something of yourself to stay in England? Is somebody threatening to send you back to France?”

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"Mmm - true." Nicolette had to agree to that, there were already one or two at court, who's opinion meant nothing to her.


"La, it is a pity there is so much jealousy. But I suppose that is what drives competition, drives ambition, yes?" Nicolette considered rhetorically. She'd already witnessed that very thing, it had hurt at the time, but eventually she'd come to terms. Those people had only been trying to get ahead. "Pity those who do not make their own fortune, there is so much people can do for themselves if they get off their derrieres."


Nicolette did not have a thick skin, which Nell had witnessed for herself, perhaps that meant she was doomed for upset. But as an optimist this french lass still hoped for the best. Perhaps she could defy the odds, and raise to the top with sensitivity still in tact.


"I would not ask Portsmouth!" Nicolette gave a laugh at the thought, "she is French, and Catholic. But you, you have a reputation for honesty, and the wit to reply to quite anything. Portsmouth, everyone knows, is a weeping coward, her's is not the advice I would want."


Which was precisely the reason Nicolette had aspired to meeting Nell one day, while she'd never made an ounce of effort to meet Louise.


"I am patient." Nicolette replied, having already come to terms with the fact that she'd not be one of these overnight successes Nell mentioned. "I might become an acquired taste perhaps?" Still, even if the King had not wanted her immediately, there must have been something about it to make Buckingham think that she was worth grooming. Nicolette held on to that thought.


"It is my pride that had me say this." she explained to Nell, "My cousin Lord Basildon is a kind and generous man, he has never suggested I return home, but has made me feel very welcome. Even his Lady Wife has been considerate. But I cannot life from their charity forever, one day I need my own home, my own means. But you know of these things, I have seen your house in the Pall Mall." While Nell was not the mercenary that Portsmouth was, she'd been wiley enough to insist upon free holding of her own house.

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“Sometimes,” Nell agreed. “But jealousy usually turns to arrogance once you achieve what you want, and then you leave yourself vulnerable to somebody else taking your place. And you're right. If you get off your arse and work hard, you can achieve all your dreams.” Nobles, however, didn't know the meaning of hard work. She doubted this Frenchwoman did, either. Most noblewomen either married to achieve status at court or seduced powerful gentlemen. But that didn't always work out. Even if you made it to the King's bed, there was no guarantee you would stay there.


Nell had already noticed that Nicolette was easily upset by perceived as slights, She was too quick to jump to conclusions, which could kill one's chances of rising in court society. Perhaps being overly sensitive was a French trait; Portsmouth certainly had it in spades.


And it looked as if Mistress Vauquelin already knew what her fellow Frenchwoman was like. Or she was just flattering Nell at her enemy's expense, which was actually a rather clever move. “Very wise. You'd do best to avoid her or you might be washed away by her tears.”


A bark of laughter followed Nicolette's description of herself. “That's a good thing, love. I'm a bit of an acquired taste myself. And patience, as they say, is a virtue. Wait for the right opportunity and pass over those who might hurt you in the long run. Those who rise quickly usually fall quickly too.”


So she was Lord Basildon's cousin. Nell knew who he was and she wondered why Nicolette was so eager to get away from him. He was not without influence and could probably help her achieve her goals. But she might have to ask him, for gentlemen often needed a bit of enlightenment even when the obvious was staring them in the face. Maybe she thought that he would withdraw his hospitality if he believed it wasn't enough for her. However, he was ambitious, or so Nell had heard. Why would he not encourage the same trait in his cousin?


“You're lucky that you have a family who cares about you and can provide for you. I never had nobody but myself. Everybody needs their freedom, and I don't blame you for wanting to make your own way in the world. But don't sell your cousin short. He may be able to help you gain the independence you want without doing something that you might regret later.”

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Nicolette mostly understood the sort of uptight upbringing that Louise as a French noble woman would have had, and so knew that to ask the Duchess that sort of question would be considered the rudest of the rude, and utterly unforgivable. But Nell was a bawdy English, what more a commoner disposed to swearing like a fishwife. She had assumed that Nell was unshockable, and might even enjoy an utterly blunt question like that - Nicolette wanted Nell to see she had some balls herself (even if she was oversensitive at times)


“I shall play the long game." she agreed with Nell of the patient route. Nell was not to know that Nicolette's vision was far more distant than she could imagine; the French girls ultimate goal was beyond a successful run as a King Mistress (when she hoped to ask the King to settle her with his favorite Irish Earl). Nicci supposed her ultimate goal was at least two seasons away, possibly three or four, depending upon how long it would take to gain the Kings eye. She had a tentative aim to find her way to the Kings bed next spring -- but if it took longer, then it would take longer.


“You have your family now." Nicolette encouraged Nell, hers was an irrepressible urge to find a bright side whenever she heard someone say something negative. Though Nell went on to point out a positive herself then, suggesting that she might be underestimating Louis ability to help. The thing was that what Nicci wanted, Louis could not secure. He'd offered what he could, generously offered her a dowry if she could catch Ranelagh, but Ranelagh was... well, on too high a branch to ever consider Nicolette as a wife. Nicolette was barely more than a commoner, she was the daughter of a merchants son who'd been given a french knighthood just months before he died.


"The only regret I do not want, it the regret of not trying." she replied, and reached to squeeze Nell's hand.

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Nell wouldn't say Nicolette had balls, but she did appreciate her candor and the fact that the Frenchwoman didn't look down on her because she acted and spoke like the commoner she was. In her opinion, the French were snobs, with their noses stuck so far up in the air that it was a wonder they could see where they were going. Mistress Vauquelin was a breath of fresh air, which could be one reason the former actress was so open with her.


She was also smart, willing to take the time to work her way up rather than expecting courtly fame to be handed to her on a silver platter like so many nobles, both lords and ladies. That was another point in her favor.


Nell smiled when Nicolette spoke of her family. “Yes, I ain't alone anymore.” Her sons brought her a joy that she had not known existed before their births. Motherhood suited her and it was one of the reasons she had left the stage. She had more time to spend with them and they wouldn't grow up ashamed of having an actress as a mother. Nell was as respectable now as she would ever be, and even esteemed by some, such as the Frenchwoman standing before her.


She said nothing more on the subject of Lord Basildon. Nell did hope that she remembered her advice. She was surprised when Nicolette squeezed her hand, but she squeezed it back. “You'll never get nowhere unless you try.” Was Mistress Vauquelin so naïve that she believed no one would attempt to take advantage of her ambition? Many ladies had been ruined by the promises of unscrupulous men. “Do you have plans for the ball tonight? Balls are a great place to make favorable impressions on courtiers you might not get the chance to associate with anywhere else.”

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Nicolette was indeed naieve. It had not occured to her that Buckingham was playing her, that he had said all he had, (personally and through Francis) to halt her , to manipulate, to prevent her persuing the king.


Ever since the walk in the park when the King had shown an interest in her, Buckinghan had been paying the girl attention also. Naieve indeed. Which is perhaps just another word for foolish. Fool to believe she had to be ruined to advance her chances. Fool to believe she needed to write animously to seduce him. Fool to be out of sight untill some ‘one day’ when Buckingham would permit it... ‘one day’ might also mean never. She had chosen to trust the men at their words.


It was hope that deluded her, hope blinds quite and utterly completely. Time would eventually revel the fate of Mlle Vauquelin.


“It shall be grand.” she smiled of the ball blithely, with no intents to do anything out of the ordinary. Afterall she believed that she was at the Dukes direction on some path way to her goal, did not consider it was more of a detour.


“I shall look for you there mmm?” Nicci smiled, then, and letting go of the hand she had squeezed moved towards arising, “It has been a treat to meet you, we shall become friends yes?” But for now the morning drew on.


While Nicolettes attempt to make a christmas game had flopped, it has been a good fortune to meet Nell, to form a bond with the cynic. One day Nell might be saying I told you so, but curiously, it was more likely to be Nell Nicolette would turn to than any other. Honesty is rare at court, ans Nell had been that in spades to the Frenchgirl.

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Mistress Vauquelin did not reveal her plans for the ball. If she didn't have any, perhaps Nell's words would inspire her to sieze the opportunity it presented and milk it for all it was worth. “I will be there,” she confirmed. “I'm never very difficult to find.” She chuckled. “Just follow the arrogant glares.”


They had been talking for quite some time and it was time to Nell to be on her way back to her house in Chelsea and her sons. “A pleasure to meet you as well,” she replied. An enigmatic smile was her only response to Nicolette's offer of friendship. It was possible that they could become friends, but the Frenchwoman might change her mind if being seen with her meant she was looked down on. If she aspired to be libertine, perhaps she wouldn't care, but she was overly sensitive and might eventually see Nell as a hindrance. She was not admired in all court circles.


“I'd best be getting on,” she said, swigging the rest of her eggnog and setting it on the table a bit too vigorously to be decorous. “Merry Christmas and I'll see you tonight.” Whether they would get the chance to converse together was anybody's guess but she would be watching the French girl. She had made a favorable impression on Nell, which was quite rare for anyone she considered a toff.


With a genuine smile, she turned and left the drawing room. She was warm enough now to brave the cold again.

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As Nell made to leave, she nearly collided with a wall of scarlet velvet. The unmistakable tall, lanky figure of Captain FitzJames had for the moment occluded the doorway. Brushed velvet, white lace, fluffy white feathers in his cavalier's hat and the silk sash through which his weapons were thrust were the picture of an Officer's uniform. And very tall jackboots for very long legs.


Stepping back as he realised he'd nearly collided with her, Douglas gave a lopsided smile and doffed his hat, bowing deeply to the lady he'd nearly run over. He'd never had so much as a conversation with her, but any Life Guard who spent much time around the Kings quarters would recognise her.


"Why, if tisnae th'inestimable Nell Gwynn." He said warmly, pleased for a chance to use a recently acquired word. "Yer pardon, m'Lairdy."*


Straightening up, he swept his hat back onto his head and stepped aside, gesturing to indicate that she had the right of way.



* "Why, if it isn't the inestimable Nell Gwynn. Your pardon, my Lady."

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Before she reached the door, Nell threw Nicolette a smile over her shoulder, and when she turned back around, she found a scarlet wall blocking her way. If she had waited a second longer, she would have collided with him. She stepped back at the same time that he did and looked up at the mysterious gentleman as he doffed his hat and bowed to her. A Scot. And a very handsome Scot at that.


One auburn eyebrow rose when he greeted her. 'Inestimable?' What the bloody hell does that mean?' By the way he smiled at her, it was obviously a compliment. She would have to ask one of her friends what it meant.


“And if it ain't...” She grinned cheekily. “... the tallest soldier I ever seen.” Nell didn't think he was a toff, as his manner toward her was charming rather than disapproving. He moved aside to let her pass, but she stayed where she was. She did want to head home, but she was curious as to his identity. “Since you know my name, I think it's only fair that you give me yours,” she added in her non-nonsense way.

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And so with a plan to meet at the ball, Nell set out on her way as Nicolette bent to collect her basket. A familiar voice then lifted to the air, and the French lass lifted her head to see an near-miss, an almost-collision between the departing and the entering. Douglas!


“This is only the most wonderful Lord Dundarg, Captain in the Lifeguards, and Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeen.” Nicolette answered Nells question as she approached with a broard smile, extending her hand to wards the man in uniform, “I did not think you were attending this season, it is wonderful to see you, my Braw Samphire huntsman!” Seeing him was a delightful surprise.

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Douglas smiled broadly at Nell’s quick recovery over her surprise at nearly running into him. Clearly she was rarely at a loss for words, but then her wit was famous. It was interesting that she hadn’t at least heard of him, there were only so many Scottish giants in the Life Guards, but perhaps that gave him an air of mystery; he could only hope.


Nicolette relieved him of any need to introduce himself as she did the honours in far kinder and grander style than he himself would have. It did wonders for a man’s ego to hear a lady speak of him in such a fashion.


La Belle Vauquelin is far tae kind.” Douglas mock-protested, accepting the proffered hand in his own large one and kissing Nicci’s fingers. “Tis a joy tae see ye tae.”* He assured her with a smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes.


“I wuid hae been here days agie, but the passes were snowed in.” He explained. It had been a heavy winter so far in Scotland. “Hooe’er, I haed the promise o’ the comp’ny o’ fine lairdies tae keep me giein’, an’ here I am at last.”** And very glad of it. Not that cold winters weren’t something he was accustomed to, but for the liveliness of court there was no substitute.


Court was a place of possibilities, of dreams and nightmares and anything in between. It was addictive. “Noo I get tae reunite wi’ one o’ the finest lairdies, an’ finally meet ano’er wha’s name I hae lang kent, but wha’s fame doesnae do her justice.”*** He flattered, holding out his hand for hers to kiss, if Nell would permit it.


There was nothing for lifting the spirits like the company of happy women.



* “La Belle Vauquelin is far too kind. It’s a joy to see you too.”

**“I would have been here days ago, but the passes were snowed in. However, I have the promise of the company of fine ladies to keep me going, and here I am at last.”

*** “Now I get to reunite with one of the finest ladies, and finally meet another whose name I have long known, but whose fame doesn’t do her justice.”

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Nell noticed how eagerly Mistress Vauquelin moved toward the door and the way she called him 'wonderful' when she introduced him. Was there something besides friendship between these two? It seemed rather likely. Perhaps the Frenchwoman wished to marry the Scottish life guard? Could that be the extent of her ambition?


“Delighted to meet you, wonderful Lord Dundarg,” she said, her cheeky grin still in place. She winked at Nicolette when Douglas kissed her hand. They seemed to be very well-acquainted. Nell could understand why Nicolette was interested in him and she had to admit that they made a nice-looking couple.


So he thought Mistress Vauquelin was one of the finest ladies at court? It appeared that he fancied her too. Flattery didn't work on Nell, but this once, she decided to pretend that it did. “Flattery will get you everywhere, my lord,” she quipped. She also didn't let unfamiliar gentlemen kiss her hand, but again, she made an exception and placed her hand in his. Nell smiled up at Lord Dundarg as if he was the most charming man she had ever met. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Nicolette's face for any sign of jealousy.

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Oh Nicolette definitely liked Douglas, though right since their first 'date' both knew marriage would not be in their horizon -- but that hardly meant that she wasn't ecstatic to see him, or that she'd not now look forward to spending some time charming Scott. That was one of the most entrancing things about choosing a life libertine - Nicolette thought to love freely and at whim an utterly marvellous concept (She’d never been much inclined towards forever-after commitments anyway.)


"Oh you make me miss Mistress Wycliffe," she giggled as he called her Belle Vauquelin, and then turned to Nell to explain, "Speaking of flattery, Mistress Wycliffe won a place in my heart by giving me such a pretty nickname." Nell would have counted it against the widow, but Nicolette was a different sort, and enjoyed the garnering of her good books (Perhaps because she was of lowly rank, there was a certain novelty to it.)


Nell made jest with Nicolette’s introduction. “It was too much?” calling Douglas wonderful like that, still Nicolette grinned of it, the words had been directed more to Douglas than to Nell. That was one of the side benefits of introducing friends, you got to express affection for them at the same time. Meanwhile Nell seemed to be taken with Douglas, which was easy enough to understand.


“The roads were bad, even just from Basildon, it must have been dreadful further north.” Nicolette agreed, “It might be even harder to go home again after. Perhaps court shall just remain in London mmm?” she made a little small talk, while appraising Douglas and thinking he’d put on some weight since last season (he’d been a little thin after an illness).


It was a little unexpected how Nell came to hold Douglas hand like that, and then the look that Nell gave her? Smiling away the oddness Nicolette said, "You shall be well warmed soon Lord Dundarg." and gave a little laugh. It would be quite a surprise if Nell decided to do the warming, but Nicolette had seen more surprising things at English court.

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Douglas wasn’t the sort to pick up on subtle undercurrents, and took Nell’s response at face value. Her charmed smile was met with a smile of his own as he bowed over her hand and touched his lips to her fingers, convinced he’d charmed the erstwhile actress. She was someone he felt he had something in common with, being someone that others looked down on. He took care not to linger over her hand however or do more than was proper for a gentleman; he’d learned the hard way that one did not dally with the King’s mistresses.


He definitely did think Nicolette one of the finest ladies at court. Ever graceful in his experience and able to charm the hearts and minds of those around her with her winsome ways. Like himself she didn’t have a lot of money or a high station, but unlike himself she seemed to be friends with everyone, to draw good humour and friendship from all around her. Including himself. It was a talent that he admired. That she thought him wonderful and the admiration was mutual was a happy thought.


“Haps we weel hae tae stay in London fer e’er,” he agreed with Nicolette’s suggestion, “rather than risk the roads an’ ne’er returnin’. I kin think o’ far worse fates.”* Especially if it meant he could keep the company of lovely ladies. Nell was the King’s but Nicolette was unspoken for so far as he was aware, which made her time and company available, unlike Nell herself.


“A man kin git awfu’ cawd on the snowy roads.” He replied as Nicolette spoke of warming, and rubbed his arms, though in truth it was the summer heat he had more difficulty with. “Hou shuid he best warm hissel’?”** He asked, interested to see what they would say. He had distinct opinions on the matter of course.



* “Perhaps we will have to stay in London for ever, rather than risk the roads and never returning. I can think of far worse fates.”

** “A man can get awfully cold on the snowy roads. How should he best warm himself?”

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Nell was unaware of Douglas' origins or that like her, he was looked down upon. He was both a Baron and a high-ranking soldier and she figured that he was an amiable and charming noble who didn't care about her common status. Nor did she know who Mistress Wycliffe was. She thought the nickname that the mysterious woman had given Nicolette would make her no friends at court if she went around calling herself that. That Lord Dundarg used it indicated to the clever Nell that he did, indeed, fancy her.


However, she sensed no jealousy when the tall Scot kissed her hand. Then again, Mistress Vauquelin would know that Nell had eyes only for the King, despite her flirtatious nature. The Frenchwoman had nothing to fear from the former actress. Tonight at the ball would be more telling. She would watch the two of them and note how they acted toward each other when they interacted with other courtiers of the opposite sex. It was always good to know who fancied who at court.


All knowledge was worth having.


“Maybe a little,” she answered when Nicolette asked if calling Douglas 'wonderful' was a bit much, but she said nothing else about it. Nor did she comment on snowy roads and dangerous journeys. The only time Nell traveled was to follow the King and she was most comfortable in London where she had grown up. When they contemplated staying in London permanently and Douglas mentioned there were far worse fates, she grinned. “You're right about that.”


She wasn't fooled when Douglas rubbed his arms and pretended to be cold. “I'd think you'd be used to the cold coming from Scotland,” she said, calling him out in a playful way as she crossed over to the table and the pitcher of eggnog. A servant appeared out of nowhere with another glass and she filled it up, carrying it over to the pair and holding it out to the Scot. “This'll warm you up. It worked for me.”


Again, she carefully watched Nicolette's expression, wondering if she had planned to warm him up in some other way. There would still be time for that, as Nell didn't plan on sticking around. “And now that I'm warm I gotta brave the cold again. It's best I get home before my sons start worrying about me.”

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