The weekend flew by in a flurry of activities. Between the festival, the preparations for the trip to Northern Shores, and the examination of the Elders’ accounting books, there was little time for Johanna to contemplate much else. She remained in the protection of Samuel as they walked the festival, purchasing items at the booths, speaking with visitors, and granting short interviews from time to time. When they were at last able to sneak away undetected, they would find a few hours to spend alone at his house. Love making was becoming a part of her life, and she was more than eager to make it a permanent part.
It wasn’t until Monday morning that she was able to think about the envelope Samuel returned to her the morning after their first sleepover. Removing the brown package from the top drawer, she placed it on the desk and examined the British postmark. The return address was Scotland Yard.
A part of her hesitated as she feared what she might find inside, yet she had already read Reginald’s journal. She knew this was the reports he had mentioned receiving on her grandfather’s death. She just wasn’t sure if she was ready to face the facts after all these years. Somehow, believing her grandfather died by accident was more comforting than knowing his life was cut short by a killer.
Taking the papers out of the envelope, she began to flip through them. The top several pages were the investigating officer’s report, followed by the coroner’s examination. It was difficult to see the outline of a body with the red X marking where a bullet had entered Charles’ throat. Then she saw something else, something curious enough that she reread the papers. Under the scapula on the left side was a line indicating a knife wound.
Based on what the coroner found, he believed Charles was first stabbed. The report stated that this was not the cause of death, but there were bruises on his knuckles and hands that indicated he was either fighting before he was killed or struggling for his life after he was stabbed. The fatal bullet was the result of his death.
Johanna stared at the drawing for several long moments as she inspected every detail. In her mind, she could see her grandfather’s face, but it didn’t look like the one in the photos from the scene. In her mind, he was laughing. She remembered all the fun they had, the times he would take her riding, the days he had taken her to board meetings followed by ice cream afterward.
A strong ache gripped her heart and she felt the sorrow from all those years flood back into her. For so long, she had fought to hide the pain, but seeing it all in black and white in front of her made her realize she couldn’t hide from the truth. Her grandfather had been murdered.
The sound of a soft knock echoed at the door and Johanna looked up as Alissa stepped in. She was still in her night robe and slippers, a cup of coffee in her hand and her long blonde hair pulled back in the customary ponytail.
“Good morning Sweetheart,” she said with a yawn as she sat down in the chair opposite her niece. “How did you sleep?”
“Very well, thank you. I think I’m finally getting used to that bed.”
“It is a far cry from the small cot in a hot tent,” Alissa said with a soft chuckle. “What are your plans for the day?”
“I have a lot to finish before we leave tomorrow, and we have the farewell supper with our guests,” Johanna told her as she stacked the papers. When she opened the top drawer to put them back, she spotted the skeleton key on the long red ribbon.
“What’s that?” Alissa asked as Johanna pulled it out of the drawer.
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I saw it when I was cleaning out Reginald’s stuff, but I didn’t think much about it. I wonder what door has a skeleton lock?”
“It’s hard to say. This place is ancient, there must be at least a hundred doors it could fit.”
“I suppose,” Johanna said as she placed it on the desk. “I’ll have to ask Russell about it.”
“What’s that on your neck?” Alissa asked drawing Johanna’s attention back to her with a frown.
She instinctively placed her fingers to her neck as if trying to find some foreign object to brush away.
“The other side,” Alissa said. “It looks like a bruise.”
Johanna stood and walked to the bathroom, looking in the mirror and seeing the light purple hue of Samuel’s bite. She frowned when she noticed it, then clenched her teeth. Three times now he had left his mark on her, regardless of her arguing with him not to. He insisted he wanted to mark his territory.
“It’s…nothing…I didn’t see it earlier…” she said, walking out of the bathroom and moving her braid across her shoulder and hoping her aunt didn’t notice her hesitancy.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to hide something,” Alissa said with a suspicious stare. “But then that would mean that you were lying, and we both know you don’t lie.”
“No, Aunt Alissa, I do not lie.”
Johanna refused to say more about it as she picked up the papers and began to stack them together again.
“What are those?” Alissa asked noticing the top page with the outline of a body.
Johanna hesitated for a moment. She wasn’t sure if Alissa knew what had happened and had been hiding it from Johanna all these years. If she had been hiding the truth, then she had a great deal to answer for.
“How did Papa die?” Johanna asked boldly, watching the confused expression cross her aunt’s sun-tanned face.
“He was thrown from a horse and trampled,” she answered. “You know that.”
“Is that all you know?”
“What else is there?”
“This,” Johanna answered showing her aunt the coroner’s report and the drawing.
Alissa took the papers and read through them as Johanna watched for any sign of knowledge. What she saw confirmed her original thought. Alissa didn’t know anything more about this than she had. When the woman looked up to Johanna, her eyes were wide and filled with tears.
“How could this have happened?” Alissa asked in a strangled voice.
“I don’t know, but Reginald was looking into his death as well as this…”
Johanna stood and walked to the cabinet where she had put the journal the day she came looking for the package. She turned to a page she had marked then handed it to Alissa. She sat back down in her chair and again watched as her aunt began to read.
Alissa was silent for several long minutes as she read, flipping the pages as she went. At last, she looked up to Johanna, a curious expression on her face.
“Do you believe this? That your parents may still be alive?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but Reginald was convinced they were at the time. Who knows. It’s been twenty years. If they did survive the crash, it’s doubtful they lived for long in the ocean. By now someone would have found something to indicate Reginald’s ideas were accurate.”
“He told Father he didn’t believe Edward could have crashed his plane, sick or not. He said he wasn’t going to stop searching until he found them.”
“It looks like he continued for some time, long after the Coast Guard and Navy stopped. I’m just curious about what he wrote on the last page.”
Alissa turned to the last page, reading Reginald’s last entry.
Even after all this time, I still believe Edward and Juliet survived the crash. I do not believe the storm they encountered was a tropical storm, as the authorities have suggested, but rather a cyclone. It is my belief, they were thrown much farther off course than even I originally suspected. I also believe, though there is yet to be proof, that the Painted Lady suffered damage from sabotage, more than mother nature.
If my suspicions are correct, the person who caused the plane crash was the same one responsible for Charles’ death. I have contacted a private investigator in England and am waiting to hear back on what he has learned. I am convinced their deaths were premeditated murder, pure and simple. Money has always been the route of all evil but knowing how deeply this goes has proven the adage correct. Though I have to wonder if lust wasn’t a contributing factor as well. I only pray I find the truth before Johanna is old enough to take the throne. I fear for her life and her safety. If it was murder, then she may be the next target and I want the bastard stopped before I lose another of my family.
“Oh my God, Johanna,” Alissa said with a slightly pale face. “What did he find out?”
“I don’t know, the book doesn’t say, but if you look closely, it appears that several pages have been cut out.”
Alissa turned the pages carefully, noticing the very small section after Reginald’s last entry had indeed been cut out with what must have been a razor blade. It was so precise, nobody would have noticed it, but then Johanna wasn’t just anyone.
“I wonder what was on these pages?” Alissa asked with a frown.
“I’ll bet whatever they were, had to do with Reginald’s suspicions and findings. I want to do some research of my own and see if I can find out who he had been in contact with in England.”
“Maybe this is what you’re looking for,” Alissa said, noticing a very small corner of a piece of paper hiding in the back cover of the book. She pulled it out carefully revealing a name and phone number.
“Ward Carson, London England, there’s no address but there is a phone number,” Alissa told her handing her the piece of paper.
“It’s too late to call him now,” Johanna said, looking at the clock on the wall. “I’ll try this evening and see if he’s in the office.”
“It’s Monday here, which makes it…” Alissa began to calculate the time differences between Westerly and England.
“It’s nine o’clock here, which makes it eleven o’clock Sunday night in England,” Johanna clarified.
Alissa had never been very good at figuring out the time differences wherever they were in the world. Fortunately, Johanna was very good with numbers.
“Do you think he’ll be in his office on the weekend?”
“It will be Monday morning when I call him this evening.”
“I’ll never remember all of that,” Alissa said with a frown as she handed the book back to Johanna.
They were silent for several long minutes while Johanna reviewed the rest of the papers, mainly reports about the suspected crash of The Painted Lady, Edward’s private plane. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything they hadn’t already known.
Another knock sounded at the door and Johanna looked up to see Russell step in followed close behind by Penny with a tray of coffee and pastries and Samuel.
“Good morning your Majesty,” Russell said as cheerfully as he knew how. “Lady Alissa,” he nodded pointing to the table the maid always set the tray on. The girl turned, bobbed a quick curtsey then left the room.
“Mrs. Crosby called to inform you that the supplies have arrived in Northern Shores and the media is beginning to report on your trip.”
“Already?” Alissa asked with a frown. “That might cause some complications for your arrival.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Samuel assured her as he took the seat next to Alissa and accepted the coffee Russell poured. “My men are already there, and the hotel has been secured. You have the entire top floor, including the Royal suites.”
“Royal suites?” Johanna asked with a frown.
“That’s what Northern Lights, the hotel you’ll be staying at, calls their most expensive and largest suite. It’s a very exclusive hotel and the rooms are quite large to begin with, but the Royal suite is roughly a flat on its own.”
“Good,” Alissa said approvingly. “Johanna doesn’t deserve a small room in the corner.”
“I’d be happy with a tent and a cot,” she said with a smile.
“Those days are long gone Sweetheart,” Alissa said with a chuckle. “I doubt a woman of your status would be caught dead in a cot.”
Alissa glanced to the envelope still on the desk, watching as Johanna tucked the pages back into it.
“Where do you think Reginald was searching?” she asked, continuing the subject they had left off with when Russell and Samuel joined them.
“By the coordinates, he had in the book, it was southeast of Australia in the Indian Ocean,” Johanna continued. “They were on their way back to Zambia when they ran into the storm. The Coast Guard was searching northwest. It was Reginald’s belief that my father would have had enough strength to fight the plane and steer it out of the storm, and they were searching in the wrong location.”
“I beg your pardon, Miss Johanna,” Russell began as Johanna stood and walked to the small safe in the corner. “Are you discussing the king’s research regarding your parents’?”
“Yes,” she answered as she punched in the code to open the door.
“Do you know about it?” Alissa asked.
“Yes. Perhaps this might help.”
Rupert walked to the bookshelves and lifted a cylinder tube that Johanna had previously ignored. He removed the lid from the closed end and slid out a roll of maps. They were old and looked like they had been well used for many years. Russell unrolled one, in particular, a large old map that took up nearly the entire desktop. It was yellow with age and ragged around the edges and looked to be hundreds of years old. The only thing new was the small sticky notes of pink, yellow and blue.
Johanna slipped the envelope into the safe, then turned and moved back to the desk. She frowned as she looked at the map, reading the notes set up in different locations across the Indian Ocean, as well as the equator. It was definitely old with many of the areas holding different names than today, and many ports had been circled, but the main landmasses and oceans were steadfast.
“Where did this come from?” she asked reading the notes of dates and times.
“I believe it belonged to King Ian originally,” Russell answered.
“What are all these notes?” Alissa asked leaning over the map on the opposite side of the desk.
“They are research notes from King Reginald,” Russell told her. “He spent years mapping out past storms, satellite surveys, even Naval records from Britain and America, as well as those of our own fleet. All of these notes indicate the times and days the authorities searched, as well as the storms around the same time as your parents’ disappearance.”
“He was serious about Edward and Juliet still being alive,” Samuel said in a tone filled with disbelief.
“Yes Sir,” Russell told him. “He spent nearly three months researching their disappearance after he heard their plane was reported missing. Over the years he would receive a new piece of information or read something in the news about hurricanes that would stir up his interest and he’d return to the map. He believed the old maps were more reliable than the new ones. If the pirates traveled by them, then it had to be accurate.”
“Well, he’s got that one up on us,” Samuel said. “Pirates and sailors alike had to be prepared for anything. They had to know every little island and port around the world and would avoid those that were maintained by the stronghold of the law.”
“But what are the directions for?” Alissa asked.
“By knowing the temperature of the ocean, and that of the storm, you can map out its intensity, and figure out how wide the storm was,” Johanna told her.
“He has directions - SW, SE, NW - what are those for?”
“The direction of the storms around the time the Painted Lady went down, as reported by the meteorologists,” Russell clarified.
“This one has two directions - SW to S,” Samuel said, pointing at one particular sticky. “And there are two dates on it, a single day apart.”
“That’s the day your parents’ plane was reported missing,” Alissa said, pointing to the first date. “I’ll never forget that day. I still have nightmares about Father’s phone call.”
“There’s a spot here, that’s circled,” Samuel added, looking to a small dot in the ocean. “Why would it be circled? There’s nothing there.”
Johanna was silent as she stared at the map. She opened the journal Reginald had been keeping and flipped through the pages until she got to one in particular.
“What’s the matter?” Alissa asked.
“Reginald wrote that he had contacted the British Navy and asked them to search in a different direction than they were told, but they refused. Everything stated they were looking in the correct area and were following orders. He sent the Westerly Navy to search, but they didn’t find anything either.”
“So, he was wrong,” Samuel said.
“I don’t think so,” Johanna replied. “I need the reports from the Navy. Maybe if I can coordinate his notes with theirs…”
“Johanna, you have one project to deal with as is,” Alissa interrupted. “Two if you consider that phone call you still have to make.”
“We can deal with this a little later,” Samuel told her while Russell began rolling up the maps again.
“Wait,” Johanna insisted.
She took her phone out of her back pocket and snapping a picture of the map’s area she was most interested in. Replacing the phone in her pocket, Russell continued rolling up the maps and returned them to the shelf.
“I’m going to find Martin and get cleaned up,” Alissa said, setting the coffee cup she had brought in with her on the corner of the desk. “We’re going to the seaside this afternoon. Would you care to join us?”
“Thank you, but I have a lot of work to do before the farewell supper,” Johanna insisted, looking through the journal again. “I need to review the mortgages for the properties in Northern Shores that were foreclosed on, and I need to write up my plans.”
“You also need a break,” Alissa insisted. “When was the last time you had any fun?”
“Every day this weekend,” she said, fighting the heat that stole up her neck at the thought of how each day had ended.
“That had nothing to do with relaxing,” Alissa argued as the two lovers exchanged quick looks. “You barely rode any of the rides, and you were working every evening and missed the fireworks. Come to the seaside and go snorkeling with us. We’ll take a boat out and do some scuba diving. I know you like that.”
“Alissa, I cannot afford the time,” Johanna argued as she tucked the journal into the safe and closed it. “I have appointments scheduled all day and I want to leave early in the morning. It’s my intention to have Northern Shores straightened out and back in order in four months. That leaves very little time for snorkeling.”
“Are you sure you’re not rushing things a bit?” Alissa asked her with a frown. “I know you’re motivated, like always, but there’s so much to do. You’re not really allowing yourself much time to get everything done.”
“Perhaps not, but I have an amazing team working with me, and I know that once we get started, the residents are going to get psyched and will want to help.”
“If they wanted to help, they would have done it themselves years ago,” Alissa grumbled.
“They lost hope and felt rejected by Reginald,” Johanna told her, gathering up the scattered papers from the desktop. “When a person feels despair, they don’t have faith or hope. I’m going to give them more to be proud of and offer them a reason for optimism.”
“If you insist. I still think you’re in for a disappointing reality check.”
“We’ll discuss it in four months,” Johanna assured her, sitting down in her chair. “Are you and Martin going to stay here while I’m gone, or are you going to Australia as usual?”
“If it’s alright with you, we’ll stay here. This island is much more pleasant than the hot deserts.”
“It’s fine with me, just try not to be a nuisance to Russell or the staff.”
“When have we ever been a nuisance?” Alissa asked with an amused grin. “Don’t answer that.”
Johanna glanced up to her aunt with a soft smile, shaking her head. The one thing her aunt exceeded at was being a nuisance, especially when she wanted to dig in a new area or research a particular point of interest.
“Would you like me to bring your breakfast to you, Miss Johanna?” Russell asked before he left the room.
“Yes, please,” she answered opening the lid to her laptop and switching it on. “And Captain Carrington will be joining me. Are you going to stay for breakfast, Alissa, or will you eat with Martin?”
“No, I really need to get showered,” she answered walking to the door. “We’ll get a bite before we go to the docks. Martin wants to take his kids to the Egg Farm. It’s his favorite place on Westerly. I’ll come let you know when we leave.”
Alissa opened the door, thinking of the very popular restaurant known for their many egg dishes.
“Alright,” Johanna answered watching the woman leave, followed by Russell.
She waited until the door closed to draw a deep sigh and leaned back in her chair looking to Samuel across the computer’s open screen.
“Is it wrong to say I can’t wait to get out of here?” she asked him with a small smile. “I think Northern Shores is going to be more of a holiday than dealing with my aunt.”
“At least she means well,” he told her as he crossed his ankle over the knee of his opposite leg.
“I know, it’s just hard to listen to her constant complaining. I never realized how easy I had it with all my studies. It kept me away from her most of the time, so I rarely noticed how annoying she can be. Which reminds me,” she snapped as she tossed a pen across the desk, watching it bounce off his chest. “Alissa noticed your latest claim to my body. When are you going to stop biting me?”
“When you admit you belong to me,” he chuckled, watching her remove the skeleton key from the drawer as she slipped the papers inside. “What’s the key for?”
“I don’t know. I found it hidden in the drawer, but there’s no door that I know of that has a skeleton lock.”
“Maybe it’s the playroom,” he suggested casually as he reached for it, holding it by the ribbon.
“The what?” she asked him with a curious expression.
“The Playroom. Every home has one. It’s usually a small room off the master bedroom or a room in the basement or attic. If I remember the story my instructor told me once, this may be the key Ian gave Angelique.”
“Angelique was a very shy woman, or so the story goes. Ian was the first one to make a private playroom. It’s a room where the couple can use to play outside of the bordellos. It’s set up to be used as a private room for sex,” he explained, still looking at the key. “Ian gave the key to his young bride, but she was too shy to ever admit she wanted to use the room. He made her an agreement. If she wanted to role play, she would slip the key on the handle of their bedroom door. He would know what she wanted and take control of the situation. She would never have to embarrass herself by telling him she wanted to play.”
“This belongs to their playroom? I wonder where it is?”
“Most likely it’s attached to the master bedroom.”
“There’s no room attached to the bedroom. I’d have known if there were,” she insisted, taking the key from him and slipping it back into the drawer.
“It’s not going to be visible to guests,” he chuckled. “In fact, it wasn’t until Ian and Angelique had passed away that their grandson - the bloke who caused the curse - found it when he was adding onto the palace. From then on, the room was used by the master and his bride…or his special guest.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” she grumbled.
“What are your plans for the afternoon?” he asked with a wink, moving past the subject he knew she didn’t want to discuss further.
“Not that,” she smiled back. “I really do have a lot of work that needs to be taken care of before this evening’s supper.”
“Then, if you aren’t going to need me, I’m going to check in on the stables. I’ve been neglecting them far too long. I need to make certain Kelil has everything in order before we go.”
“Will I see you tonight?” she asked as he stood to leave.
“Of course,” he smiled with a wicked grin. “I don’t know if I can sleep without you.”
“I meant for supper,” she clarified, walking over to where he stood.
“I’ll be here for moral support, don’t worry. I’m eager to see how you can handle a formal dinner.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means, my little tom-boy, you have to wear a dress with heels and appear to act like a queen. Regardless of how eager you are to be done with the night, and get back into my embrace, you have to put a good foot forward for your guests.”
“You don’t think I can do it, do you?” she asked with a narrowed gaze.
“I know you can carry out the dignity of the title, but I’m not sure how long you can keep from strangling the upper crust of the world. I know there’s been quite a few of them who have gone to the bordellos, and I’m sure there will be a lot of questions, or comments, about the ladies and the homes. Are you up to defending more than your own ideals?”
“Just watch me, Captain,” she said with an arrogant tilt to her head. “I’m going to knock your socks off.”
“You usually do,” he chuckled and kissed her briefly then left the woman alone in the room to complete her multiple tasks.
Supper was an unusual event with hors d’oeuvres and champagne served in the large sitting room, while the main meal was served by fifteen young maids in the formal dining hall. Johanna sat at the end of the table in a large, almost throne-like chair, with Samuel beside her on the right, and her aunt on the left. The guests were each assigned a seat in order of their importance, but the chair that would normally be used for her consort, or King, had been replaced with three additional seats.
Thankfully the conversations were individualized, so she wasn’t obligated to respond with more than a simple comment or answer. Samuel continued to watch her, though he easily discussed the history of the island with England’s Prime Minister. He seemed as comfortable in a tuxedo as he was in a damp towel, while she struggled to breathe in the form fitting gown Janessa had made special for the evening. Johanna felt a tingle of jealousy. She wasn’t used to this many people and wasn’t sure exactly what to talk about with them, or which one to concentrate on first. Samuel, however, seemed to fall right in with everyone, as if he had known them for years.
“Johanna,” Alissa said in a soft whisper, drawing her out of her private thoughts. Johanna turned and looked at her as she leaned in to whisper silently. “Supper cannot be started until you pick up your fork.”
“What?” she asked with a frown, noticing that nobody had started eating.
“It’s the protocol for royalty. The queen starts the meal, and when she’s finished eating, so is everyone else.”
“Oh,” she answered, smiling as politely as possible as she looked down in front of her.
At last, Mrs. Reynolds gave her something she could eat without feeling like she had to spend an extra hour on the treadmill.
Johanna picked up the large spoon and dipped it into the elegant china bowl of soup sitting on a matching saucer. She glanced around to see the rest of the guests following suit. At least she wouldn’t be accused of starving the leaders of visiting countries.
“So how was the bordello?” she heard Samuel asking the Italian Viscount across the table from him. She frowned as she saw the slight pink coloring the man’s face.
“It was quite…interesting,” the man replied in a deep accent.
“The ladies are world renown for their expertise,” he told the man, and Johanna noticed quite a few people - men in particular - had stopped their own conversation to listen.
“We saw them this morning on our way down to the seaside,” Sweden’s princess said with an amused expression. “They were running around the back of the whorehouse.”
“It’s a bordello,” Johanna quickly corrected, bringing all eyes to her. “And they weren’t running, they were exercising. King Edward made it mandatory that the ladies spend an hour every morning exercising in order to maintain their physical health and stamina necessary for their jobs.”
“Do you believe those…women, or ladies as you call them, actually have jobs?” the French President asked her.
“No, they have careers,” she corrected in a tone that warned him to watch what he said about the main reason Westerly was still a uniformed, peaceful island. “They work hard to provide a service necessary to help control crime. They are all paid very well and are treated with respect by every citizen on Westerly. They also have my full support and backing.”
The room was quiet for a few awkward moments, until the wife of Mexico’s President spoke up.
“I met one of those women this afternoon,” she said boldly. “I had the chance to speak with her about what she does. I have to say, she changed my opinion of the homes. She even allowed me to sit in on a training session of one of the young men.”
“You watched them?” the daughter of the American President asked.
“Yes, but they didn’t know I was there,” she continued in a strong, accented voice. “I was in a room with a two-way window. The woman I spoke with, I believe her name was Amy Winterton, she said parents or trainers will sit in on a boy’s session to make certain he is learning his lessons the right way.”
“What lesson were they doing?” the Swedish princess asked, her tone still thick with disapproval.
“It was the boy’s second lesson, so he was very nervous,” the Hispanic woman continued. “The trainer was patient with him and taught him the proper way to touch a woman. I’m not talking about sexually,” she added when she saw the smirk on the face of Egypt’s leader. “I was very impressed. She was teaching him how to hold her hand, how to caress her cheek, how and where to touch her body so that she was not afraid of him. There were no sexual acts involved, just loving tenderness.”
“Every boy is taught how to treat a woman with respect and gentleness,” Samuel said, glancing to Johanna, then back to the Hispanic woman. “We all undergo years of lessons, from touching and kissing, to bondage. We’re taught how to make love, how to properly perform foreplay, and how to relax a woman during role play. Every boy is taught exactly the same as their fathers and their grandfathers were. Sex and romance outside of the bordellos are for the pleasure of the woman. The boys are taught how to push a woman’s resistance to the point of deep, pure satisfaction. Inside the bordellos, the ladies are there for the man’s pleasure.”
“King Edward spent twenty years traveling the world to learn the different techniques and styles of sex,” Lord Reading added proudly. “What he discovered was a unique way of controlling a woman’s desires, and how to remove the fear out of lovemaking.”
“But the women are being used as sex slaves,” the French Ambassador’s wife said. “They are oppressed and kept as…toys.”
“No, they aren’t,” Johanna added, once again bringing the eyes of her guests to her. “Sex slaves are women who have no choice of what they do or with whom. They are kept and used at the will of a controller - a madam, or a pimp, even an owner or a master. The ladies of our bordellos work three twelve-hour shifts, two days and one night a week. The rest of the time is theirs. They are doctors, teachers, mothers, students, even wives. What they do is a service, not a job, and never a forced responsibility. They are there because they believe that through sex, a person can find peace. They enjoy what they do. Yes, they are being ordered to obey a man’s desires during a session, but they are treated with tenderness and respect at all times. It’s the ladies who are actually in control, because they set the limits of what a man can do to them. Some of the women like harder, more aggressive sex, where others like tenderness and pampering. The guests choose them based on what they prefer, but if the lady doesn’t want to be with the guest, then they have the last say, and the Guest chooses another lady or is told to leave the home.”
The room became deathly quiet as those gathered around the table shared looks between the queen and the others sitting nearby. When the maids returned to clear away the soup bowls, Johanna drew a breath of relief. At last, it was finished, and she could go back upstairs and get out of this ridiculous gown.
She was nearly ready to push her chair back and leave the room when a second wave of maids entered with plates of salad and set them in front of the guests, beginning with Johanna. She looked down and decided a salad didn’t add much in the way of calories, and it didn’t increase her chances of insomnia.
“We had the chance to tour your beautiful island this morning,” Germany’s Ambassador said as he accepted his plate from the attractive red-haired maid. “It truly is a paradise.”
“Thank you,” Johanna said, noticing once again nobody was eating. She drew a breath of courage to fight off the irritation and picked up her fork. “We find it enjoyable.”
“I don’t know how you could handle all this sunshine,” the Norwegian Prime Minister said with a disgruntled tone to her voice.
“Isn’t it sunny in Norway?” the Italian Viscount asked.
“Of course, it is, but we rather enjoy our cooler climate. This place is warmer than hades.”
“No, that would be the desert of Cairo during July,” Johanna added with a smile that hid little of her irritation with the woman’s attitude.
“That’s right,” America’s President said with a smile. “I forgot you weren’t raised on Westerly.”
“No, I wasn’t, unfortunately, but now that I’m here, I don’t plan on ever going far enough to leave it behind.”
The conversations continued on in several different directions, allowing Johanna the comfort of listening rather than participating. Samuel glanced to her several times throughout the meal, trying to contain his reaction to her purple satin gown that hung from her shoulders with tiny thin straps. The bodice was tight, though it was split open across her cleavage with laces holding it closed. The back of the gown was completely open, allowing Johanna the freedom to go braless. Much to his distaste, this small fact was not lost on the male counterparts of the palace’s temporary occupants. He was growing frustrated with the way the men stared at Johanna’s chest - forgetting her eyes were a foot higher.
When the maids cleared away the salad plates, Johanna made the mistake of setting her napkin aside, but was stopped from getting up with Alissa’s warm hand on her arm. She shook her head softly, causing Johanna to frown. Just as she was about to question her aunt’s reasoning for keeping her in place, a small plate with a baked potato and grilled pineapple slices were placed before her. Johanna looked to Alissa in disbelieve. This was worse than her normal meals, and she was already full from the soup and salad. Instinctively, she picked up her fork and sighed. There was no way she was going to get through this meal, and she was beginning to think it was far from over.
Feeling as if she had been silently chastised for her attempt at a premature departure, she remained in her seat while the maids removed the plates a third time, once they were empty. As desperately as she wanted to leave, she had the distinct impression she was going to be detained again.
As predicted, a plate of grilled salmon and asparagus was set in front of her. Once again Johanna looked to her guests, catching Samuel’s amused grin. He knew from the lack of attention she paid to her last dish, she was far from interested in the food. With a forced smile, she picked up her fork and cut through the salmon, forcing a piece down her throat. True, it was as delicious as all of Mrs. Reynolds’ dishes, but she now understood why Janessa made the dress she was wearing without a back. It would prevent her from ripping the seams when she stood up.
Once the meal was complete and all seven courses had been served, Russell stepped to her side. With a quiet voice he suggested the group retire to the parlor for dessert and coffee. Fighting the urge to groan, she smiled to the man and briefly cleared her throat.
“May I suggest we go to the parlor for dessert and coffee,” she said, repeating the man’s advice.
Samuel was on his feet in a moment, holding the back of her chair so she could stand. Once she was on her feet, she placed her hand through his bent arm as they made their way into the room down the hall. She felt as if she was literally waddling with all the food she’d forced herself to eat. Mentally she promised herself a good workout session before she left for Northern Shores tomorrow and was thankful the twins and Michael weren’t in attendance. She was certain Angela would have made a snide comment about the amount of food she was ordered to eat. Michael would insist she never ate more than a simple dish for supper, while Sarah caused an international scandal by trying to seduce one of the male guests.
The conversations continued as the dessert was passed around and coffee poured, followed by brandy. The main topic of discussion was the island and the beauty of the scenery. Within a few minutes, however, the subject had turned back to the bordellos. Johanna listened as the Russian Prime Minister asked the Viscount to tell him more about his visit to the ladies. He told the Italian he had arranged a visit for the morning, with his wife’s blessing, and was nervous about what to expect.
“I have a suggestion,” Johanna said, putting a halt to the smaller conversations around the room. “The ladies are very good at instructions. Perhaps you should consider taking your wife along.”
The gasps and whispers that followed were more amusing than she had anticipated. She glanced to Samuel who raised an eyebrow to her, encouraging her to continue.
“No offense, your Majesty,” the wife of Germany’s Ambassador began, “but I doubt a proper woman would be seen in a place like that.”
“My dear Helga,” Johanna said with as polite of a smile as she could force onto her face, using the woman’s Christian name. “When King Edward set up the routine for the bordellos, he had special plans that included married couples. He has a specific routine that involves the wife, while the man is taught how to please his woman in bed. Once there is happiness in the bedroom, there is happiness in the home, is the moto of the Bordellos. The ladies teach couples how to relate to each other sexually, all the time.”
“I cannot believe a woman would submit herself to…that,” Helga commented with a sneer of disgust.
“My husband and I go to the bordello once a month,” Franny told the woman defensively. “Sometimes more often depending on what our lives are like at the time.”
“Margaret and I have our own schedule as well,” Lord Reading, Patrick’s father, stated proudly.
“You see, Frau Herdrich,” Johanna said, surprising everyone with her German terminology, “the world spins quite contently by the sound of a different drummer.”
The room was awkwardly quiet until the Viscount cleared his throat. He took a sip of his brandy, looking around the room for something to say. Seeing the piano in the corner made him remember an article he read about the new queen.
“Your Majesty,” he said politely. “Would you do us the honor of entertaining us?”
“I beg your pardon?” she asked with a frown.
“The pianoforte,” he clarified. “You do play, no?”
“Johanna is a brilliant pianist,” Alissa told them proudly.
“Only because I’ve had excellent tutors,” Johanna clarified, excusing her talent by hiding behind her instructors as she usually did.
“Please, play for us,” Lady Jackson of Red Bluff pleaded.
Eager to have this night over, Johanna set her coffee cup on the table beside the sofa and moved casually to the black baby grand piano. She had yet to explore the musical instruments of the palace and had no idea if they were even tuned. She knew Reginald’s late wife played, but after she died, he refused to let the piano be played, even at parties.
Sitting on the upholstered seat, Johanna opened the lid across the keyboard. She plunked a few keys casually to see the pitch, then closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. With the skills of a seasoned professional, she began playing Beethoven’s Sonata para piano No. 7. For the next thirty minutes, the palace guests were delighted by her musical talents. Johanna had nearly forgotten how much she loved to play. She could feel the beauty of the notes caress her like the warm fingers of a secret lover.
When she finished, she felt hot and was certain she had a damp face, but she didn’t care. She was thrilled to have had the opportunity to play, but it wasn’t until the guests applauded that she remembered she wasn’t alone. She turned to them and nodded politely as she stood off the bench, feeling somewhat exposed and embarrassed.
As the evening wound down and the guests began to go to bed, the young queen was awarded some time to herself. Samuel left to check on the guards, promising to return shortly, allowing her the privacy she sought. Sitting back down at the piano, she began playing again, this time Chopin’s Gymnopedies No. 3.
The sweet music echoed through the silence of the palace, bringing with it a feeling of comfort that had been gone from the home for many long years. Russell, Mrs. Reynolds, Annette and several others from the staff snuck through the side door, opening it just enough to hear the beauty of the keys as they were struck rhythmically by the slender fingers of the master. The dining hall was quietly cleared away as the music embedded each room until nearly midnight.
Samuel returned, slipping into the house and silently shutting the front door. He stood by the entrance of the room while Johanna played, admiring the way she looked so comfortable and peaceful at the piano. As she moved on to Chopin’s Prelude, he thought back on what she had told Nora about practicing. He knew, if his little sister ever heard her, she would strive harder to be more like Johanna, if that was even possible.
Not wanting to disturb the young woman, he slipped silently back into the foyer. Russell saw him and stepped around to the hallway about to say something, but Samuel held his finger to his lips to silence him. He smiled as he quietly left the house, hearing the sweet music as he climbed into his truck and drove away into the night.