Disclaimer: Don't own Beauty and the Beast. Never have. Never will.

KABOOM!

Smoke rose in a silver cloud from the back of the tiny cottage in the distance as the slender woman jerked up from gathering eggs so fast she hit her head on the low roof of the chicken coop. Not again! She could have predicted that her husband would have caused another explosion that morning. He always seemed to. In fact, it was an off day when Maurice didn't have a mishap with one of his inventions. I hope he isn't hurt this time, she thought as she placed the egg basket on the ground, tucked up her skirts and began to sprint towards the house, hoping that she wouldn't have to go to the village for the doctor again- money was rather tight at the inventor and his wife's house after the doctor's last visit, when Maurice had broken his leg repairing his latest machine. She dashed behind the farmhouse to the shed, all the while praying that the damage wasn't too extensive this time. Please, God, let Maurice be all right. Sometimes, with the accidents her husband was prone to have with his inventions, Vianne was honestly surprised that she wasn't yet a widow, and only half-jokingly wondered how long she had before one of Maurice's inventions finally killed him.

It had never been very easy being an inventor's wife, but somehow Vianne had managed. Her quick wit and ability to come up with a good excuse for damage or a reason why a machine for chopping wood that could fill an entire room would be necessary had served her well many times in keeping Maurice out of trouble. And would she ever need a good excuse today- out of neighborly obligation, she had invited Francoise from up the road over for tea that afternoon. Nothing slipped past that woman, not a single thing! If Maurice was hurt, it would be her fault, never mind the fact that her husband was a grown man with the power of reason, and she had asked him to be careful. Even if Maurice was perfectly fine, which she hoped he was, Francoise would still say that her husband, Jean-Luc, would never be caught in such lunatic pursuits, and that poor Maurice needed to abandon his inventions and search for a job more in keeping with those of ordinary men, such as farming or running a shop. She might even imply that all this came of Vianne's reading. Not that it mattered at the moment what Francoise would say; right now, Maurice was Vianne's only concern.

She reached the worn, red door of the shed and threw it open, only to be met with a cloud of smoke. When it cleared, she heaved a sigh of relief to find her husband still in one piece. She couldn't say the same for the machine. Maurice's latest feat of engineering, a machine he said was supposed to be able to slice any kind of meat, fruit, vegetable, or bread; had exploded all over the shop. It was only a small machine, but Vianne didn't care if they would now have had to clean up the remains of a machine the size of an entire room as long as her husband was still whole. But that didn't mean that he wasn't hurt- the sharp knife in the machine was sticking out at an odd angle, where it wasn't too hard to imagine that some part of her husband's body had bumped into it as he stumbled in the explosion. Sure enough, he was holding his arm and grimacing. His rage, however, as usual, appeared to be directed at the machine.

"Are you all right?"

"How on Earth did that happen?!" Maurice yelled, gazing at the wreckage of his machine as Vianne rushed over to him.

"What happened? What's wrong with your arm?" She yanked his sleeve up and winced at the deep gash running up Maurice's forearm where sure enough, he must have brushed against his knife. "My God, you're bleeding!" She ran out of the shed, returning in less than a minute with her sewing basket, a jug of ale, and a mug, and poured him a drink. "Here. Drink this." She had tended his wounds before, and luckily, this was nothing she would need assistance to handle. Living on a farm with four brothers had taught her many things, not the least of which was how to heal wounds, including stitching up cuts.

Maurice grimaced and held his arm, his brown eyes flashing fire at the machine. "I'll never get this blasted contraption to work!"

"You always say that. Now drink up, and quickly- we're going to have to get that cut sewn up, and fast." She pushed the drink towards him and he shook his head and took a drink. "So how did this happen?"

"Well, it looks as if I put too much gunpowder in the fuse box this time." Vianne nodded. Maurice was convinced that gunpowder would do the trick to create the short, sharp explosions of power that would be needed to make the knife produce smooth slices in one swift stroke. Unfortunately, he had yet to figure out the ideal amount to use. "That magazine is just a piece of junk!" he yelled, slamming the mug on the table and sloshing beer all over the table. "I'll never get this finished in time for the fair in two days!"

"Perhaps you will and perhaps you won't. Either way, you mustn't give up yet." Vianne soothed, placing her hand on his shoulder. "But now we need to focus on stitching up that cut before it becomes infected. You're already going to have another scar, I see." She kissed him and handed him the ale. "Now keep drinking. It'll deaden the pain."

A few drinks later, Maurice was drunk and numb, and Vianne was stitching away at his cut with a new needle she had recently bought from the marketplace. She was nearly done when her husband asked the one question she had hoped he wouldn't yet.

"How is our baby coming along in there, anyway? He seem to be growing well?"

Vianne sighed. Here it was- the time she had been dreading all morning since she discovered the disappointing truth for the seventh time in her marriage. The time when she would have to break the news to Maurice that she hadn't really been pregnant after all. Vianne thanked God that she had gotten Maurice drunk this time- the last time she'd discovered her realization that she was pregnant had been a mistake, two or three years ago, her husband had taken it so badly he'd cried. Thank Heavens Maurice was a happy drunk- the weight of the situation would not reach him until later, giving Vianne enough time to finish her own grieving. She had been having a difficult enough time keeping herself composed all day; if Maurice crumbled, she did not think she would be able to stand it. Thankfully, the alcohol appeared to be doing both of the jobs she had hoped it would and she doubted that the news would register until later.

"Maurice, I'm sorry but… there was no baby this time. It was a mistake."

"….Again?" Maurice's body wobbled a bit, and Vianne grabbed his arm to steady it as she continued to sew. "How many times now?"

"Seven," she murmured, fighting back the tears she had barely been able to keep back earlier that morning in the privy. "Seven times." She felt Maurice's gentle hand caressing her shoulder and looked up into his eyes.

"It'll be all right, my Beanpole," Maurice drawled, swaying from the beer. "We made a mistake- it wasn't the first time. But I'm sure it'll be the last." He winced slightly at the tug of Vianne's needle in the cut as she made her final stitches. "Don't worry; as soon as I get back from the fair next week, we'll try again, and this time-"

"I'm starting to think that maybe we shouldn't bother ourselves with another 'this time.'"

"Of course we will, Beanpole. Why not?"

"I am turning forty in a month, Maurice, and you are forty-three. If the good Lord had meant for us to have a child, wouldn't we have one by now?" She tied off the thread and snipped the end off. "I think that it's time we gave up."

"Give up? Why?" Maurice yelled. "Maybe this time it'll happen? We'll have a child! If I shouldn't give up on my invention, why should you give up hope of being a mother?"

Why should I give up hope? Why should I not, Vianne thought to herself, going to the table for her sewing basket as painful memories of her and Maurice's life together and how disappointing it was that they had no child began to fill her head.

Vianne had always wished that she were prettier. If she had conformed more to the common standards of beauty, maybe she wouldn't have been considered so odd. If Maurice were too heavyset, he was equally matched by his wife in being too thin. Vianne's nickname growing up had been "string bean," and she had dreaded hearing that word every day almost until she was married. Almost all of her friends had been lucky enough to grow into enviable curves with round, luscious hips and noticeable bosoms. Vianne had tried everything she could think of short of eating straight lard, yet she never seemed to put on any visible weight. Her figure was boyish and her chest practically flat. Worst of all, at a height of five- foot-ten, she was the tallest girl in her neighborhood. Maurice, bless him, had never cared about that, or at least had never given any indication that he cared; Vianne sometimes thought that Maurice had always been so glad that someone had married him in the first place that he wouldn't have cared if his wife had been Medusa herself.

Even worse than her figure, in Vianne's mind, was her hair. First, there was the color. Her mother, a raving beauty in her youth, had been blonde. Unfortunately, Vianne had inherited her father's black hair instead. Then, there was the fact that she could never seem to control it. She would pull it back in a bun every morning; by late afternoon, it would be falling out around her shoulders and down her back, no matter how many hairpins she used. Trying to curl it was a losing battle as well- no matter how hard she tried, no matter how long the curling irons stayed in the fire, it seemed that her hair was destined to be eternally stick-straight. Her skin was pale, her lips were thin, her fingers were a bit bony- the one thing Vianne had always liked about her appearance

Her unconventional looks weren't the only thing that was considered odd about Vianne by her neighbors. True, she had her friends, but she was never able to be very sociable, and as a result, was rather shy. This, of course, was due to the life she led. She had never had much time for fun in her life. Her father, Arnaud Voisin, ran a very large farm on the outskirts of her hometown of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, and considered hard work and industry to be the most important thing in life, besides adherence to Biblical virtues. He and his four sons spent their days out in the fields and their nights going over the farm records and did very little else. Vianne herself, in fact, was expected to be a boy when her mother was expecting her. It was probably just as well that she was a girl, however, as her help turned out to be needed much more than that of most daughters in the house. Lucie Voisin had been the sweetest mother ever to grace Montreuil-Sur -Mer. She was always there to hug her little girl's tears away when other children had been teasing her or her brothers had been rough with her or stolen her doll or one of her books or embarrassed her in front of people. When she was able, she was always more than happy to teach her daughter how to knit a sock or bake a pie or sew a dress. She was kind and thoughtful and always put her children before herself. But Lucie's health had always been poor; if there was any illness going around the village it seemed, no matter how small, Lucie was sure to catch it and have it develop into something serious. As a child, Vianne had heard whispers around the town that her mother was never expected to survive childhood, let alone have children and live to tell the tale. Even today, she was still amazed that her mother had lived to see her daughter turn thirty before dying of fever. Due to her mother's constant illnesses, Vianne had spent most of her time taking care of her, doing housework and looking after her two younger brothers. In whatever time she had left, she read books. When Vianne was seven years old, her eldest brother, Jehan, had taught her to read, and ever since then, she had devoured everything she could get her hands on, enjoying worlds so unlike her own and reading about people so unlike any she would ever meet in Montreuil-Sur-Mer. That was another thing that set her apart from everyone else in the town- her love for books. For as long as she could remember, many people had called her "odd." Then, she met the sweet, cheerful inventor who would soon become her husband.

Vianne would never forget the day she first met Maurice Sendaque. She was nineteen years old, and she had been walking through town that day on her way to the market to pick up some herbs for a tea she would make later that day to help with her mother's cold. She walked down the street with her nose buried deeply in The Canterbury Tales- her favorite book, a new present from Jehan- and was deeply engrossed in "The Pardoner's Tale," when all of a sudden; her book was ripped out of her hands.

"Bonjour, Mademoiselle String Bean."

Vianne sighed. "Bonjour, Jean-Luc. Pierre. Jacques."

Standing face-to-face with her was a tall, muscular man in hunting garb, his short brown hair messy from chasing after kills in the forest and his boots covered in mud. His quiver was empty of arrows and in the background, his lanky, shorter friends, Pierre and Jaques, carried their game. Vianne hated this part of her day more than anything. People talked about her all the time, it was true, but no one was worse than Jean-Luc. Every time she ran into him, ever since they were children, the town bully would always find something negative and disrespectful to say about her appearance or reading, or sometimes, her family. He was a boorish lout and his fawning cronies were no better. Since she read "The Merchant's Tale," she had always pictured Jean-Luc aging into something rather like the vain, hedonistic Lord Januarie: a chauvinistic leach who at the same time attempted to hold absolute control over his wife. In fact, from what her on-again-off-again friend Francoise would tell her, in her judgmental rants about everyone in her life, he had been just that since they were married twenty years ago. According to Francoise, they had a small nephew in another village called Molyneaux who idolized Jean-Luc these days and was showing signs of becoming just like him.

"Look, boys, she's reading again. Women, eh?"Jean-Luc laughed.

"Jean-Luc, please. Will you give me my book back?" It was best to be straight with him, not show emotion. Sometimes it would make him leave faster.

"Don't you know that it's not right for a woman to read? Don't you know that she starts getting ideas, and thinking?!" Pierre taunted, as Jean-Luc threw Vianne's book to the ground.

"You know, Mademoiselle Bean, they say that women who read too many novels go mad. Are you mad, Mademoiselle?"Jean-Luc laughed.

"Oh, come now, boys," Pierre taunted. "Let the little spinster have her fun. The ideas are all she's ever going to have!"

"Oh, I don't know, Pierre," Jacques purred in a false-sympathetic tone. "There must be some man out there who'd be willing to put up with a wife attached to a book all day."

"That is if any man would take her, eh Jacques?"

"Oh, I'm sure she'd be perfectly lovely- to a blind man!" Jean-Luc boomed, laughing hysterically along with his friends.

"Hey! That's no way to talk to a lady!" Came a yell from beside Vianne. When she turned to look, her eyes fell on a young man of about twenty-two with messy black hair and a moustache to match. He was pulling a very large cart on which sat what looked like a gigantic hodgepodge of household objects, held together by nails, screws, and wooden planks. One look at the poor man told Vianne that he would probably soon regret speaking to one of the strongest men in town that way. Whereas Jean-Luc was large and muscular, this man was rather on the short side- Vianne noticed that she had to be at least a head taller than he was- and was weedy, with little muscle tone that she could see.

Jean-Luc noticed him too. He leaned over the man threateningly, staring him in the eye as his friends loomed behind him. "I beg your pardon?"

The man was not cowed. He stared back at him with equal intensity. "How dare you show her such disrespect? What has she done to you?"

"Look boys," Jean-Luc boomed. "I see we have a knight in our midst." He glared at the man. "Why don't you mind your own business, stranger?"

"First, you leave the lady alone." The men didn't move. The stranger glared around at all three of them, his hands forming into fists. "I mean it."

Jean-Luc laughed, then punched the strange man in the eye. He fell to the ground with the force of the blow. Laughing, Jean-Luc sauntered towards the tavern, followed by his friends, leaving Vianne alone. Before she knew what she was doing, Vianne had run over to the man who had tried to defend her.

"Monsieur, are you all right?" Within moments, she was by the man's side, helping him to his feet, and gazing with pity on his black eye. "I am so sorry." The heat of embarrassment flooded Vianne's body.

"He shouldn't have said those things to you," the man grumbled, rubbing his eye. "A lady like you ought to be respected."

Vianne blanched. "Thank you… for what you said." She paused. "My name is Vianne Voisin, Monsieur."

The young man tipped his hat. "Maurice Sendaque."

"Enchante. I'm very, very sorry about this. Thank you again, for helping me, a stranger-" she trailed off, at a loss for words. This poor "Maurice Sendaque" must have been so embarrassed, getting punched in a public place, all for a girl he didn't know! I should just leave this instant, before I embarrass him any further, she thought, and, flustered, she picked up her book again and began to hurry away.

"Wait, please!" Came the call from behind her. Vianne turned around and saw the man reaching towards her, his other hand over his black eye. "Are you all right?"

Vianne blanched. "Perfectly fine, Monsieur. Au revior." She quickly turned around, wanting to get to the market and back home as quickly as possible.

"Oh, please, wait."

"It was lovely meeting you, Monsieur, but I must get to the market. My mother is sick, and I need to buy her some herbs immediately. Au revior."

"Please. At least let me walk with you." Vianne was about to refuse again, but one look in his eyes, full of concern for her and remorse at what happened, changed her mind. The earnest expression on his face told her that he was going to keep asking until she agreed, and in spite of herself, she felt a bit flattered. It was rare that anyone took this kind of interest in her. She nodded and they began to walk as Maurice took up his cart again. They strolled in silence for a while, until suddenly, Maurice had blurted out-

"I'm sorry about your mother. I hope she'll be all right."

"She only has a cold at the moment. It could have been a great deal worse. I'm sure once I can buy the herbs and make her some tea, everything will turn out all right. I just hope my father and brothers don't catch it from her. Father says that they all need to remain in perfect health for the planting season."

"You have brothers, Mademoiselle?"

"Four. Two older, two younger."

Maurice paused."Mademoiselle… does he… that man, Jean-Luc… talk to you like that all the time?"

"Well…" She tried not to look at the concern on Maurice's face, knowing that no matter what she said nothing would change. "Sometimes. But it isn't as if he were alone in his opinions."

Maurice was shocked. "And your brothers never stand up for you?!"

Vianne had shrugged. "They have tried, but people still talk. Really, what can they possibly say? They say all over town I have my nose constantly stuck in a book- that's definitely true. I rarely go out, because I'm always needed on my father's farm. And I don't pretend to be the village belle by any means. What else can I possibly say, Monsieur? I'm odd. Why pretend otherwise?"

Vianne didn't learn until after their wedding that at that exact moment, Maurice had been thinking that she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. When he told her that, he also said that he had wanted to tell her so at that moment, but was afraid he might scare her off. So all he said at the time was, "It's a shame to talk about people that way, though, isn't it." He paused for a moment. "You know, they talk about me, too, where I come from."

"Really?"

"Oh yes." Maurice had nodded grimly. "They call me 'odd' too, as a matter of fact. You see,"- he tilted his head towards the hodgepodge of wood, iron bars, nails, screws and household objects on his cart, "I'm an inventor by trade, and many people, well, they just don't understand my work. They call me a lunatic." Maurice laughed a bit. "In fact, it seems like every other day, I hear 'there goes Crazy Maurice working on his crackpot contraption!' But they'll see one day," he added, a determined grit coming into his voice. "One day, one of my inventions will show the world out there just what I've got! Someday, Mademoiselle, you mark my words, I'm going to win first prize at a fair and become a world-famous inventor!"

While Maurice was telling her all this, Vianne had taken the chance to get a good look at the wagon he was pulling. She had never seen anything like it. She could see now that the invention appeared to revolve around a large, sharp metal stake, attached to a plank hinged to a boxlike frame made of planks and iron. The whole thing was strung through with a system of pulleys attached to what she could now see was a bellows, a teapot, and a window shutter, among other things. The whole thing appeared to be powered by some sort of fire-box inside the main frame. How fascinating. How on earth did he put this together?

"This contraption you have- it's incredible! I've never- what does it do?"

Maurice beamed. "I designed this machine to plant seeds automatically. That's why I came to your town, in order to try and sell them to the farmers. You see, the firebox in the frame boils the water in the teapot that sends steam up that pipe to the right, which activates the bellows, which blow the shutters, which activate the pulleys. You see that- that stick on the end-"he was by now practically bouncing in excitement to share his invention – "It pokes the holes in the ground. You will notice that there's a bag of seeds attached to the top- the planter is hollow and the seeds flow down into the holes. You don't even need to push it, it runs on wheels powered by the-I'm sorry; I've been going on and on about myself and my invention all this time. How about you, Mademoiselle? Tell me a bit about yourself."

Vianne laughed. "What could I possibly have to tell you, Monsieur Sendaque that could compete with that invention?"

"Oh, lots of things," Maurice replied, wracking his brain for an idea. Finally, he had one! "That book you're reading looks very interesting, for example. What's it about?"

Vianne's face lit up as she favored the young inventor with the biggest smile he'd ever received from a woman that wasn't his own mother. "Oh, this book is excellent! It's called The Canterbury Tales. It's about a group of travelers making their way to a cathedral on a pilgrimage who decide to have a storytelling contest to pass the time. Everybody on the pilgrimage- a pardoner, a miller, a squire, a knight, a priest, a merchant, a woman from a town called 'Bath'- they each tell their own different story."

"Canterbury Tales… I've never heard of it. I don't suppose it's French."

"It's English, actually. Jehan, my eldest brother, went into the Navy two years ago, and when he came home on leave, he brought me back the book from England. The book is written in English, but he thoughtfully translated it in the margins so that I could read the stories on my own. I must admit, my parents were not too happy with him…" Vianne could barely stifle a giggle at the memory of the look on her father's face when she had described "The Wife of Bath's Tale" to her family around the fireplace. She was glad that she'd neglected to mention "The Miller's Tale-" if Arnaud knew what explicit stories his daughter had been reading, The Canterbury Tales might well have ended up as kindling.

"It sounds very interesting to me." He paused to rub his eye. "This is going to hurt in the morning."

"You know," Vianne replied, thinking, "my youngest brother, Louis, got a black eye only a month ago, falling out of a tree in the orchard. If you buy a piece of raw meat and keep it over your eye for a while, the swelling should go down."

"Thank you." Maurice smiled. "I'll try that tonight. Now please, tell me more about your book."

For the remainder of the journey, Vianne had had a lovely time relating the "Pardoner's Tale" to Maurice. The inventor, in his own right, was enthralled by the story of the three drunkards who went to meet death to challenge it to a fight, and how they were told by an old man that death lived under a tree in the distance, and how they had found gold under it and ended up killing each other over the riches. All too soon they had reached the marketplace, where Vianne had promised to tell her father about the invention , thanked Maurice again, and disappeared into the stalls.

The majority of the farmers, unfortunately, Arnaud Voisin included, thought the automatic seed-sowing machine was a crackpot invention; and to give them credit, it was a bit prone to malfunctioning. But that day a beautiful friendship was born between the inventor and the farmer's daughter. If Vianne went to the market and she ran into Maurice, she would be sure not to arrive home until nightfall, due to the fact that she had lost track of time talking and laughing with him about inventions and books and their families and friends and people around them and recent events in the town. Eventually they started meeting to take walks by the seaside and in the forest; and Maurice became a frequent guest for tea or dinner at the Voisins' farmhouse. Before too long, the inventor realized that he was falling in love with the girl he had tried to defend, and Vianne found herself falling for the kind inventor and fellow oddball who'd taken an interest in her.

In the next spring after Maurice's arrival, Vianne Voisin became Vianne Sendaque. She was twenty years old, and Maurice was twenty-three. After the wedding, they set up a home together in a vacant house near Vianne's parents' farm, where they built a barn for livestock and a shed for Maurice to use as a workshop for his inventions. That first year, Maurice worked hard trying to come up with a good invention to display at a fair, coming up with idea after idea after idea. Over the years of their marriage, he created, among other things, a clothes-washing machine, a hinge-oiling machine, and a machine that was supposed to snuff candles, but instead ended up making small, circular dents in the walls of the shed. That first year, however, the best thing he came up with was a tool he christened "The Dog-Legged Clincher," an odd-looking object he claimed could perform the functions of any tool. Vianne still didn't have the heart to tell him that all it was actually good for was holding things in place. Vianne kept a lovely, clean home, and her husband began to grow fat off of her delicious cooking, and every night, they sat by the fireplace with a book. Only one thing was missing from their lives: a child.

A year after they were married, Vianne ran into Maurice's shed beaming, threw her arms around him, and announced that she had just been to the midwife's and they were going to have a baby. Maurice, ecstatic, had immediately dropped everything on his latest invention and gone out with his axe to chop down a tree, which over the next few months he would carve into a cradle and matching clothing chest for the baby that Vianne was sure could rival anything in any mansion. The cradle, which was still to that day hidden in the shed along with the chest in hopes that one day Vianne would have a living child, was about half the height of their kitchen table and had rockers on the bottom and a small overhang carved with carved stars, with attachments to support tiny bed curtains. The chest, in turn, was small and varnished, with roses carved on the cover. Meanwhile, as her belly started to grow, Vianne constantly sewed baby outfits and knitted little blankets. Together, she and Maurice chose names- "Maurice" after his father for a boy and "Lucie" after her grandmother for a girl- and godparents for the baby's christening. And together, they dreamed of the kind of child they hoped that they would soon have. Maurice hoped that their child- boy or girl, he didn't care which- would be unique and individual, like a snowflake or a star in the sky. He hoped that that child would not be afraid to be him or herself and would accept and appreciate others- his or her parents included- for their idiosyncrasies. He hoped that the child would take an interest in his inventions, but even if the child didn't, Maurice just hoped that he or she would be happy no matter what. Vianne, however, although she agreed with Maurice on the outside, had had something a bit more specific in mind. Although she never would have admitted to having a preference, she hoped that the baby would be a girl. Not just a girl, but a girl who would be everything her mother was not- petite, curvaceous, beautiful and blushing, maybe a tiny bit plump with blonde, luxuriant hair and an outgoing disposition. A girl who would know what to say around others all the time, and wouldn't feel shame or be made fun of for her interests. A girl like the heroines from the books she read, who would lead an exciting life and go on to do great things. The only thing Vianne wouldn't have minded passing on were her sage-colored eyes. If she could have a daughter like that, she wouldn't feel so badly about herself, or so judged by her neighbors. She would have produced something that they could all envy.

Unfortunately, before any outcome at all could occur, disaster struck.

One morning, Vianne woke up at cockcrow to horrible cramps in her stomach. She threw back the covers and gasped at the blood covering the sheets. Screaming, she shook Maurice awake and yelled for him to run for the midwife. Maurice jumped on the horse and rode as fast as he could to the midwife's, soon returning dragging the woman half-asleep into the bedroom, but it was too late. Vianne had already miscarried. Vianne was inconsolable all that night, and wouldn't leave the house for a week. Even when Maurice bought her a book she had had her eye on for a while, it didn't do much to ease her pain. The one comfort Vianne had was the fact that she and Maurice had resolved to try again, and that next time, they would have a baby.

Two years later, Vianne was pregnant again. This time, Maurice refused to let his wife lift a finger around the house; as a result, the house wasn't as clean as it usually was, and Vianne had to choke down a great deal of burned food during her pregnancy. Maurice, bless him, was a wonderful man, but his cooking was atrocious. This time, however, nine months went by without a hitch. Vianne actually discovered that she was having twins when she felt simultaneous movements from opposite sides of her womb, and the inventor and his wife were happy again, sure that after their trouble with the first child-that-would-have-been, they were being rewarded with not one, but two healthy children. Unfortunately, that was not to be either. One night, Vianne's contractions started. She stayed in labor for an entire day without a baby being born. The first twin, a girl- Lucie- never drew breath. She presented breech and was strangled by her own umbilical cord. The second twin, a boy- Petit Maurice- only lived for an hour. Again, the heartbroken would-be parents had to console themselves with the idea that next time their child would live.

But after the stillbirth of the twins, no pregnancy ever went right again for Maurice and Vianne. She miscarried eight times through the years after burying Petit Maurice and Lucie. Once, she had three miscarriages in one year. She still did not know how she and Maurice had survived that crushing pain. As if that weren't enough, there were now seven times where she had thought she was pregnant, only to have her monthlies arrive late not long after she made the "discovery." This morning would have to be the last time. She just couldn't see the other side right now.

Vianne sighed, putting the needle and thread back in her sewing basket. "I just don't know if I can stand another loss, Maurice. And we are older now, Maurice. There is probably an even greater chance now that that is exactly what will happen."

"You don't know that, Beanpole," Maurice droned. "We could be lucky this time." He planted a whiskery, smacking kiss on her cheek and stumbled into the house. Vianne shook her head, smiling in spite of herself. The gravity of the situation hadn't hit him yet.

We could be lucky this time, she thought. But she couldn't help doubting it.

Seven false pregnancies. Nine miscarriages, three of them in the same year. A pair of twins, a boy and a girl, who Vianne had carried for nine months, nine months in which she and Maurice had been sure that this time they were going to be parents and whom she had lost to complications at their birth. That made seventeen times she had come up childless in the end, seventeen hopes completely dashed- eighteen, going by babies or presumed babies as opposed to pregnancies. Yes, fate was definitely against the Sendaques having any children. By now, Vianne no longer cared about whether or not she got her perfect baby girl, all that she wanted was a baby, any baby, and she would love it with all her heart regardless, and she knew for a fact that Maurice felt exactly the same way. She wanted to believe her husband, wanted so badly to let herself think that after the next fair, they would try again and this time, the baby would live. A part of her would die inside if she were to give up. But the other part of her, the sensible part, the part that had to be strong and keep things running smoothly while Maurice continued with his dreams, knew that it was best that she did. Try as she might, she couldn't rid herself of the thought that if she was meant to be a mother, she'd be one by now. Another disappointment would just be too much. And besides, it wasn't as if she had nothing good in her life. She had a wonderful husband she loved, who might well become a world-famous inventor, a nice farm to live on and plenty of books to read. If they didn't try again, it wasn't as if their lives would be ruined. Still, though, although she knew it prudent to give up, part of her couldn't help wondering what might have been, and what might still be.

Little did Vianne and Maurice know that somewhere, far, far away, another woman was watching them and knew of their yearning. Little did they know that this other woman was moved by their sorrow, and was willing to help them… provided they could prove that their feelings were sincere. Little did they know that this woman had a grand scheme of her own and that their help could well prove to be invaluable if they really could love whatever child came their way.