Johanna sat at her desk, trying to sort through the correspondences that had arrived since leaving Northern Shores. It had been more than a month since she returned from finding her parents, and the house was anything less than settled. The children were overwhelmed with activities, the least favorite was the visits from the royal physician.
Immunizations were administered, with a considerable amount of screaming, and a full physical was performed on each member of the family. Regardless of the time spent on the island, Edward and Juliet were in remarkably good health, though a bit thinner than the physician would have preferred. As for the children, they were in amazingly good health. Their diet of fruits and fish gave them the vitamins they needed, and the nutrients necessary for healthy growth.
Janessa had finished a wardrobe for the children, and Faith and Hope spent the first three days changing from one outfit to another. Their favorite part of the palace life was the baths they took nightly. They loved the warm water, and the bubbles, and stayed in for nearly an hour at a time.
About the only thing they had problems with at first, was sleeping in the beds. Like Johanna, they weren’t used to sleeping on soft mattresses, and rolled out of bed the first two nights. Johanna’s bedroom was secure and quiet, far enough away from the others, yet the sudden screams of a child in the middle of the night, left no doubt that the occupants of the royal apartment would wake up startled.
Samuel managed to sleep over every night and left shortly after dawn. As much as she insisted that there would be no objections to his being there, he was afraid of what her siblings might think if they found him in her bed.
Charlotte-Ann’s press release regarding the royal engagement made the papers the day after their return, and the letters of congratulations began flooding into the palace almost immediately. Fortunately, Mary was keeping track of cards and letters for her. Every day a stack of gratitude cards was being sent out, making the small post office feel overwhelmed.
As soon as their announcement became public knowledge, Sorensen made a statement saying that he wasn’t surprised that Johanna was getting married - it was her obligation to provide an heir - but he was disappointed with her choice of grooms. That in turn, made Samuel angry, who threatened a rebuttal. Johanna was able to ward him off for now, but she knew if Sorensen continued to make his voice heard, she wasn’t going to be able to contain his anger.
She had to admit, a part of her didn’t want to stop Samuel from speaking his mind, but she didn’t want him to start his first days in the palace, under a shadow of anger. She’d already been forced to make a statement regarding the old man’s last accusation, that Edward was the true ruler of the island. She wasn’t all that eager to have to defend Samuel as well.
A soft knock sounded at the door, and Johanna looked up as Russell stepped in to the room, followed by Penny. She set the tray on the coffee table, did a little bobbing bow, and left, allowing Russell to pour the queen a cup of coffee.
Johanna walked over to the leather chair, and sat down, accepting the cup the man gave her. She took a sip as her stomach growled and felt a sudden lurch.
“If you don’t need anything else, Miss Johanna,” Russell said, frowning at the expression on the woman’s face.
“No, thank you, I’m fine.”
“Is anything wrong, ma’am?” he asked her, watching the woman place a hand across her stomach.
“I’m just hungry,” she told him. “I guess I’ve become used to eating every couple of hours.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, mentally estimating breakfast as three hours earlier. “I’ll be happy to check on lunch. Will the pastries suffice for now?”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry for complaining. I think I’m just starting to settle down to a normal routine.”
“Your routine has been less than normal, since you became queen, but somehow, I don’t think that will stop you from conquering it.”
“Thank you,” Johanna smiled, taking another drink from her cup.
“I’ll check on lunch, Miss Johanna. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I will. Have you heard from Samuel yet?”
“No, ma’am, but I’m sure he’ll be around soon. There’s very little that will keep him away from you.”
Johanna blushed, watching him leave the room with a wide smile. The palace had grown accustomed to having the man around, and she had to admit, she looked forward to seeing him. Even when she was in a bad mood, he appeared and made her see that things weren’t as bad as she thought. Now that her parents had been found, she knew things were going to get better.
Taking another sip of her coffee, Johanna felt her stomach lurch again. She reached to the tray and lifted the sweet pastry from the plate in front of her and took a bite. Before she had the chance to swallow, she felt her stomach lurch once more, this time forcing her to run to the bathroom. She reached the toilet in time to expel the contents of her stomach.
Johanna remained in the bathroom for several long minutes, not hearing the door to her office open. Samuel expected her to be working on her computer, but instead heard her in the bathroom. For a moment, he thought of leaving, allowing her privacy, but he was concerned, so he remained. The past few days, she’d woken up with the complaint of being hungry. It had become so bad, they began keeping snacks in the bedroom.
He heard the toilet flush, and the water running in the sink. He listened to her movements in the bathroom, imagining her rinsing her mouth and smoothing her hair down with her hand.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” Johanna said, stepping out of the bathroom, watching the man turn to her direction.
“I just got here,” he said with a concerned expression as he sat the documents back on the desk and stood up. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she smiled, accepting the kiss he placed on her cheek, then sat down with him on the sofa. “I guess the coffee didn’t set well. It tastes different than before. I’ll have to ask Mrs. Reynolds if she’s changed coffee brands.”
“It tastes alright to me,” he told her, taking a sip of the cup she had been drinking from. “Maybe you’re just hungry again. You’ve been eating a lot lately. I suppose stress can do that to a person.”
“I suppose,” she said, taking the pastry she’d started eating and carefully took another bite, testing it to see if she would throw it up.
A few seconds passed, and it didn’t make her feel ill, so she continued to eat. She stood and went back to her desk, sitting down in the leather chair.
“Hope caught me on the way in today,” Samuel said, watching her rummage through the desk drawers. “She wanted to know if she could go to the beach. She said she misses the water.”
“I suppose it’s hard for her to give it up,” Johanna told him in a distracted voice. “She’s been around it her whole life.”
“Do you think the doctor will let her go, if we keep her away from other people? We can take her down to the beach below the Garden House. It’s a very secluded area, and she’ll be able to have fun without getting involved with anyone else.”
“I’ll have Mary call and ask him.”
“What are you looking for?” he asked with a frown as she moved to the opposite side of the desk, pulling out papers, ledgers, and envelopes.
“I had a pen here someplace. I don’t remember moving it, but I can’t find it.”
“You mean this one?” Samuel asked, holding a pen up for her to see.
“Where did you find that?” she asked in an accusing voice.
“Here, on your desk,” he laughed, watching her stow the items back in the drawer.
Just as she was about to close the drawer, her eyes caught sight of the red ribbon. She pulled it out to find the key on the opposite end.
“I still haven’t figured out what this is for,” she said in a distant voice.
“Have you looked for the playroom?”
“If you’re talking about the room with the games…”
“No, I’m talking about the room especially made for sex.”
“I would have seen a room like that,” she said with a disgusted expression.
“It’s hidden, always has been. It’s not readily noticeable to the children of the house, and it’s kept locked. Traditionally, the key is placed on a red satin ribbon, like that one.”
A soft knock sounded on her door, and Russell once again stepped in, pausing their discussion.
“Lunch is served, Miss Johanna,” he announced.
“Thank you,” she said, still looking at the man across from her.
“Ask Russell,” he suggested. “He’ll know where it’s at.”
“Nonsense,” she grumbled, then turned to the man standing by the open door. “Have you ever seen this key before?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Russell answered.
“What’s it for?”
“The royal playroom.”
“See, I told you,” Samuel laughed, causing the color to rise in her cheeks.
“I can’t believe it,” Johanna commented. “Do you have any idea where it is?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s in the royal bedroom.”
“There is nothing in that room. I would have found it.”
“It’s behind the tapestry,” Russell told her calmly.
“Ha!” Samuel said, standing, and taking the key from her hand, then pulling her to her feet. “We’re going to go find it.”
“I refuse to use anything Reginald would have used for…I can’t even say it.”
“Then don’t,” Samuel chuckled, passing by Russell, and pulling her to the elevator.
Russell watched the two for several moments until they disappeared behind the elevator doors, then shook his head and closed her office door. The two were like children, he thought with an amused grin. They played little games, teased each other, and loved as hard as any couple he had ever known. Perhaps once they found the room, the man would be able to convince the young queen to explore it with more detail.
Perhaps, between the two of them, love would once again flow through the walls of this centuries old, gilded cage.
Johanna pulled back the first of two tapestries, revealing a wooden door. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen this, or even suspected a hidden room. She turned to Samuel, who smiled triumphantly, then handed her the ribbon. His deep laughter echoed through the room when she snatched it from his hand and placed it in the lock. She tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge.
Seeing her struggle with it, Samuel stepped to her side and took the key, removing it, and slipping it into the lock again, but he couldn’t turn it. Wrapping his hand around the knob, and frowning with confusion, he turned the round, glass globe, amazed when the door opened.
Cautiously, he stepped in ahead of Johanna and felt around the wall, finding a light switch. He flipped it up and looked around, seeing not the room of sex toys and beds, but a nursery. Johanna stepped in and looked at the beautiful, yet dusty room.
There was a small round crib in the center of the room. The frame was brass, with an umbrella style canopy across the top. Both the bed and the top were bare of cloth, and the mattress was wrapped in plastic. The walls were rounded, like a tower, and she silently began to wonder why she’d never seen it from the exterior before.
Four-foot square windows were set into the upper portion of the walls, surrounding the room, with a ledge beneath them. On the ledge were several books and toys, dirty from the years of no use. A wooden rocking chair sat in front of the windows with dark cloth hanging across them. Next to it chair was a small brass table, and a lamp with the shade missing.
On the interior wall behind the door, was a set of shelves that went from waist high to the crown molding around the ceiling, with a four drawer, built-in dresser beneath. The room appeared to have green walls, but with all the dust and cobwebs, it was difficult to say. The floor was covered in a thick carpet, and on the wall beside the door stood a changing table. The ceiling was decorated in children’s paintings, and a small chandelier hung from the center.
Johanna went to the books on the ledge and picked up one, seeing a collection of nursery rhymes. She turned back to Samuel with a sad expression.
“This was his sons’ nursery,” she said softly.
“It’s no wonder he closed it up,” Samuel said.
“It’s so sad. All the lives lost, all the years of pain, just because of one man who insisted on having a wife and a mistress.”
“Times were different back then. The bordellos were still relatively new, and the idea of having a mistress was a common part of life. You can’t blame the man, and once he married, he was very faithful to his wife. He just forgot to tell his lover.”
“Did you ever read The History of The Witch?” she asked, replacing the book, and walking to the crib, running her finger along the tarnished, dirty rail.
“I can’t say as I have,” he answered.
“When Harold was forced to marry, he told his lover he would not be denied her bed and spent the night before his wedding with her. She feared he would never return, so she made a potion that helped her become pregnant. Harold had never met his intended bride, until their wedding day. Once he laid eyes on her, and saw how beautiful she was, he forgot all about the other woman. Three months after their wedding, he met his mistress in town, and she advised him she was pregnant. She told him she had cast a spell the last night they were together, and she became pregnant. He was horrified that she would do something like that, but when he returned home, he learned his wife was expecting a child as well.”
“I never heard that she was pregnant,” Samuel said.
“Yes, she was. And she was furious that he announced his wife was to have a child, and not her. She began to tell everyone in town that she was pregnant with the future prince of Westerly. After months of rumors, the news made its way back to Harold’s wife, and she confronted him on it. He was angry and swore that he had not laid with her since their wedding night, but she was hurt and embarrassed. Harold decided to silence the witch, but before he could leave the palace, his wife went into labor. It was long and difficult, and after hours of intense pain, she finally delivered a son.”
“That was Prince Willis, right?”
“Yes, but not the one everyone thought.”
“Huh?” he asked with a confused look.
“Harold’s wife was weak from a loss of blood and fatigued from hours of pain. She passed out before she learned her son had been born dead.”
“I never knew that,” Samuel frowned.
“Few people do,” she told him. “I learned it from the journals.”
“What happened to the witch?”
“Harold was furious and blamed her for his son’s death. He took two men with him and went to confront her. When he got to her house, he learned that she had given birth to a son the same night as his bride. He saw the opportunity to give his wife a child and took the baby. He wrapped him in his cloak and ordered his men to kill the witch. That was when she placed the curse on him.”
“So, the witch’s son was Prince Willis?”
“Yes. It was Harold’s child, so he wasn’t lying when he announced the birth of his son, he just didn’t tell his wife that their child had died. He had his infant buried, with the name of the witch as the mother. Years later, King Collin had the headstone changed to represent Willis the first, when his father admitted to what he’d done. When Harold and his wife had a second child, nobody but him and the two men who killed the witch knew of the curse. Four years later, Willis died from a fever. Four years after that, their second son, Alec died. The men told everyone of the witch’s curse. That’s when it began to circulate around the island. Harold was furious and thought that if he burned the witch’s house, that it would break the curse. He went to the house on Kulila Ma and found the remains of the witch still in her bedroom, where the men had left her. He set the house on fire, confident that the curse would end with the witch burned.”
“The remains of the old house are still there,” Samuel said. “At least the foundation is. Kids will challenge each other to go to it and place a rose on the doorstep. It’s believed that the witch’s ghost is still there, waiting for her lover to return.”
“Well, I don’t believe in witches and ghosts,” Johanna said, stepping out of the room.
“It’s said, if you look at the top of Kulila Ma, the first day of September, the anniversary of the fire, you’ll see her spirit rise above the house, moaning and crying.”
“Stories told to frighten children,” Johanna said, shaking her head.
“Story or not, the curse has been broken, and you’re living proof of it.”
Johanna closed the door behind them and pulled the tapestry across it. Perhaps she’ll speak with Russell about having the room cleaned out and converted to a small office, where she can work at night.
“There’s one more tapestry,” Samuel told her with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
Johanna shook her head in disbelief of his attitude, then stepped to the large wall-hanging of a hunting scene, and pulled it back, revealing a second door. She slipped the key into the lock and turned, feeling it give way under her fingers. Slowly, she turned the glass knob and pushed the door open on a room, pitch black and cold.
Cautiously, she took a step forward, feeling on the wall for a light switch. She felt the small buttons of the switch and pushed the top one, then gasped in surprise. The room was larger than she’d imagined it would be, with a queen-size bed against the wall joining the nursery. There were no windows, and only one warehouse style light in the center of the high ceiling.
Johanna stepped further into the room, looking at the long narrow bench sitting on the opposite end, against the cold, stone wall. The floor was covered in a thick carpet, and the walls were bare, revealing the stones of the castle. She was surprised that there was very little dust, and no visible cobwebs. That could only mean, that the room had been used more recently than the nursery.
Across from the door was a black wooden X, with four handcuffs, one on each end. In the center, at waist height was a leather belt, and above that was another, smaller and thinner strap. There was a large glass hutch beside the door, and a rack of different sized canes, whips, and flogs. In the corner, beside the wooden bench, was an enclosed wicker swing, and in the opposite corner was a small metal cage.
Johanna turned to see Samuel leaning against the doorframe, watching her. The look on his face was one of curiosity, amusement, and lust, and she turned her eyes to avoid looking at him further. The room was nothing like what she’d imagined, when he first told her about it. She assumed there would be a bed, but in her mind, she thought of a room like the movie she had seen about the bordellos. She would never have imagined anything like this.
“It looks like Reginald was into a kinkier style of sex,” he told her.
“What is this for?” she asked Samuel, walking to the cage in the corner.
“It’s used to lock a woman up for punishment, or an extended length of time. It’s all a matter of control.”
“That’s barbaric,” she said with a disgusted look.
“Some people are into the hard stuff, like the canes, the whips, the flogs. Pain and pleasure are separated by a thin line, and a lot of people enjoy crossing that line. This place looks like the dungeon settings at the Bordellos.”
“Do you enjoy this stuff?” she asked, turning to stare at the man who smiled.
Samuel pushed his large frame away from the door’s opening and walked across the room to her. He wrapped her in his arms and kissed her lips gently.
“I like what we have,” he told her in a soft whisper. “Occasionally, I like to use a whip, but I will never go further than that. Spanking is the most painful thing I will ever do to you, and that is only with your permission. Reginald went past the limits of extreme. He liked torture, and his women suffered by his hand.”
“That’s so sick,” she told him, feeling her stomach jerk with the images racing to life inside her. “I want this room emptied. Everything goes. I will not have anything here to remind me of what a sick bastard he was.”
“What are you going to do with the room?” he asked, watching her walk steadily to the door.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll fill it in with concrete or use it for storage. Anything except,” she turned and waved her hand to the bench and cage, “this.”
“It’s a playroom. It has been for centuries. It was originally designed to provide pleasure and fun for the royal couple. It was never intended to be like this.”
“And I suppose you want a room for playing?” she asked, turning back to him before stepping out the door.
“Well, yes, I do. And you will to, in time. It’s going to take patience and understanding, but you’ll see that it’s a unique way to explore sex.”
Johanna was silent for several long moments as she looked across the room’s furnishings.
“We’ll see,” she said. “But it won’t be this. I want it all gone.”
Samuel watched her leave the room, before following her, but paused at the cabinet next to the door. He saw a book sitting on a shelf behind the clear glass doors. He opened the door and removed the green ledger, frowning at the name on the front.
“What’s that?” Johanna asked, looking at the strange expression on the man’s face.
“It’s a ledger,” he told her.
“Why would Reginald have a ledger in this place?”
“Maybe to hide it,” he said as he began flipping through the pages.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“The ledger is an accounting of one person’s spending habits.”
The Founder’s Day celebrations had started an hour earlier, with Johanna offering the opening speech. There were more than three hundred booths set up, selling trinkets, souvenirs, homemade goods and sweets. The fireworks display was going to be amazing, in fact they all were, and expensive. The next seven days was going to be a spectacular display of flamboyance and splendor.
This year was a bit different than those for the past ten years. Bloody John’s ship, the Iron-Fist, had always been a part of the Founder’s Day celebrations, until a few years back, when it became necessary to put her in drydock. For years, the massive galleon had sat at the pier, as a symbol of how the island was formed, and who protected it.
Over the centuries, the ship had been repaired off and on to keep her seaworthy. During the reign of Queen Angelique, Ian would take passengers on his ship, showing them the islands from the deck of a pirate’s vessel. This continued until the ship began to decay with age. Even the simple repairs made on her, wasn’t enough to keep her floating. That’s when Reginald took her out of commission.
Since then, the Iron-Fist had been in a specially built warehouse, where teams of carpenters were working on restoring her to her original beauty. This was the year when the ship would be put back into the ocean and would once again show visitors the island. With very little coercion, Samuel convinced Johanna to spend their wedding night aboard the old ship playing pirates. It had been a dream of his to make love in the captain’s cabin, and now he was going to have the chance.
Johanna looked at the clock and frowned. It had been two hours since she returned Ward Carson’s phone call, and he had yet to call her back. She understood the time differences, and understood that England was fourteen hours behind Westerly, but she was desperate to know what he had found. After all, he was the one who called her in the first place.
The sound of children echoed up the stairs to her office, and she knew her siblings were coming to talk her into going to the festival with them. Since being told the doctor felt it would be safe for them to partake of the festivities, in limited spells, they had asked her four times to go along. She knew they would be safe without her, after all, they were going to be surrounded by guards, and Edward and Juliet would be with them.
Since their rescue, Walter and Franny had been to the palace every day, spending hours at a time talking about old times, and laughing about shared memories. The once quiet palace was anything but silent, these days. The children were actively engaged in studies with a private tutor Johanna hired, and their immunizations were nearly complete.
“Johanna,” Hope shouted as the door flew open, and she ran in, followed by Faith. “We’re going to the festival. Please come with us?”
“I have work to do,” Johanna told the child again. “I promise, I’ll be along as soon as I’ve finished.”
“How long will that be?”
“I don’t know. I’m waiting on an important phone call, and I’m not sure how long it will take after that. But I promise, we’ll do the fireworks together, and the festival is here for a whole week. We’ll see it another day, if I can’t make it today.”
“But we want you to come with us, now,” Hope whined, causing Johanna to frown.
“Princesses do not pout,” Johanna scolded her, looking up as her mother came around the corner of the office.
“I’m so sorry,” Juliet said, Destiny on her hip as usual. “They escaped when I was dressing the baby.”
“She’s not a baby anymore, but regardless, they need to know their limits.”
Johanna saw the shocked expression on her mother’s face and felt guilty for scolding her. It wasn’t her fault, or the children’s, that she was frustrated waiting for Carson to call back.
“I’m sorry,” she said as Juliet tried to round the girls up and get them out of the room. “It’s just that I’m waiting on a phone call.”
“It’s alright,” Juliet said with a forced smile. “I understand you’re a busy woman. I’ll try and keep the girls out of your way.”
Johanna watched her mother shut the door on Hope’s objections, knowing things were going to be more stressful than they already were.
Since their arrival on the island, her relationship with her parents were distant. She blamed it on her work, but the truth was, she didn’t know what to say to them, or how to act. Her mother would refer to Edward as your father, and he would do likewise with Juliet. It was starting to wear on her nerves. Between that and the children constantly interrupting her meetings, or walking in on her at inappropriate times, she was ready to scream. It had become so bad the past few days, that Samuel refused to spend the night.
Just as she was about to give up, the phone rang, and she found her stomach jerking with anticipation. When Ward Carson called her, he left the message that he had some important news to speak with her about. That was two o’clock in the morning, and she left her phone in the office.
“Hello,” she answered, pressing the button while she sat down at her desk.
“Your Majesty, I’m sorry to call you so late…or early, I’m not sure which it is,” Carson said.
“It’s actually eleven o’clock in the morning,” Johanna answered. “You said you had important news?”
“I received the report back on the medication bottles, your butler sent to me,” Carson continued. “There were two bottles, her coumadin, which was used to thin her blood and prevent clotting, and the aspirin, also used as a blood thinner. Her doctor gave her permission to use the aspirin, but she would need to adjust the other medication.”
“I see,” Johanna said, wondering where this was leading.
“The coumadin level was less than a third of the prescribed dosage. We checked with the pharmacy to make certain there wasn’t a problem when Lady Catherine had her last refill. Everything on their end was routine, and nothing out of the ordinary was reported. They insist they gave her the appropriate dosage, which means…”
“Someone tampered with the medication,” Johanna surmised.
“Exactly. But I don’t think that’s the only cause of her stroke. Your aunt told the police that Lady Catherine had been suffering a migraine and was taking an overly large amount of aspirins during the day. Several people at the events she went to, also commented on her complaints of a headache, and saw her taking medication for it.”
“I already know this,” Johanna said, hoping her voice didn’t sound as irritated as she felt.
“The aspirin bottle was filled with vitamin K pills, not aspirin,” he continued. “Vitamin K is used…”
“To thicken blood in people with a bleeding disorder,” she continued, more to herself than to the man on the other end of the phone.
“Exactly. There is still a lack of proof, but it is my belief that Lady Catherine had developed a brain aneurysm, which would account for the headache. Instead of relieving the pain, or even helping to thin her blood, the more pills she took, the thicker her blood became.”
“That would account for a great deal. But how did the vitamin K get into her bottle? I remember her opening a new one the day before she died.”
“The lab found traces of glue along the top of the seal, which could indicate the bottle had been opened previously.”
“Did you find anything out about that nurse?” Johanna asked, her anger starting to taint her words.
“Only that there are thirty-one Wanda Parkers with nursing licenses in England, and not one of them match the description given to me. We plugged in her description to the computer, and it pulled up a hundred women within the London area, who matched. I think, unless we can find something else, we’re not going to get anywhere with just a description.”
“Damn it,” she grumbled, watching the door open and Samuel walk in. “Did you find out anything else about Tim Drake?”
“You were correct about him,” Carson continued. “He was in the military, and he does have a strong background in explosives. He has also been living much larger than his salary would normally provide, with a large estate outside Louth, and a new car every couple of years. There’s nothing unusual with his bank account, but he could have others. I have my team checking into it. There is something else. When we were digging into his background, we found eight juvenile charges against him, for auto theft and forgery.”
“That’s very interesting,” Johanna commented.
“One more thing,” Carson said, pausing for a few moments, then drawing a deep breath. “There was a plane ticket purchased in his name for Westerly, two days prior to Reginald’s death.”
“Reginald was killed when his horse trampled him,” Johanna said with a frown.
“True, but there are multiple ways of making a horse lose control.”
“Yes, there are,” she said, looking directly at Samuel, who was sitting in his usual seat, listening to the one-sided conversation. “Could you send me a photo of Drake?”
“I can text you one, will that do?”
“Even better,” she told him. “I’ll keep in touch. If my suspicions are correct, I’ll need your entire team to help me.”
“We’re at your disposal,” Carson said.
The conversation ended, and Johanna hung up her phone, looking at Samuel. It seemed like a long time since they were alone, and as much as she wanted to enjoy the silence, she had work to do.
Johanna scrunched her nose at the smell of horse manure, but it was far from making her forget the reason she was here. She moved about the stalls, looking at each of the horses, stroking their noses as they poked them out of the open doors. Samuel had gone ahead to find the field manager, allowing her to pace her way through the long stalls of animals.
“What are you doing here?” a man said, coming up behind her, causing her to turn with a start.
Johanna quickly pulled herself under control, relaxing her stance as she looked at the old man. His dark skin was wrinkled with the shadow of a gray beard across his chin. He was a small man, perhaps five feet five inches, thin and bald, and looked at her with piercing black eyes.
“I’m sorry, you startled me,” she told him, forcing a smile across her lips.
“Like I said, what are you doing here? Only authorized personnel can be out here with the horses.”
“I apologize,” she told the man. “I’m Johanna Abbott-Worthington. I’m here to…see the horses I donated.”
“Yes, alright, but don’t you go touching nothing,” the man said, adjusting the ropes he had hanging on his shoulder, and walking past her.
Johanna stared at the man for a moment, with disbelief. She was tired of everyone making a fuss over her, but this man couldn’t care less who she was, so long as she didn’t touch the horses.
“May I ask you a question?” she began, taking a few steps to catch up to him.
“Make it fast, I have work to do.”
“Were you working here the day King Reginald was killed?”
“Yep, I work here every day.”
“Can you tell me about that day? About his accident?”
“All I know, is that they were at half time one minute, and he was being kicked to death the next.”
“What happened to the horses during half time?”
“King Reginald always insisted his horse be brushed, and all the horses were given some water to cool off. It was a rather hot day, and they needed it.”
“Did you see anyone unusual around the horses that day?” she asked, watching him set the rope on a peg inside the stalls, then taking a rake, he began pulling the old straw out of the first stall.
“Nope, just me.”
“Was Reginald alone, or did he have…a guest with him.”
“You mean a lady? Nope, no one, but that assistant of his.”
“Yeah, that was him. Arrogant sod, he is. Always pushing people around, telling them what to do. Hell, he even yelled at Reginald.”
“He yelled at the king? That day?”
“Yep. The king told him to get off the property, and that he was finished with him. Oscar was mad, real mad, and left just after the accident.”
“After the accident? Not before?”
“Nope,” the man said, pausing his raking and wiping his face with a dirty handkerchief from his back pocket.
“Was Oscar near the horses during the half time?”
“Nobody comes around the horses but me and a couple of hands.”
The man returned to his work, and Johanna had the distinct impression the conversation was finished. With a heavy sigh, she turned around, seeing Samuel walking toward her, a tall heavy-set man next to him.
“You know,” the old man said, bringing her eyes back around to look at him. He stopped his raking and scratched his chin as if thinking. “There was one thing, kinda strange. When I came back here to get the brush, there was a man lurking around. I asked him what he wanted, and he said he was waiting for Reginald. I shooed him away and went about my work.”
“What did this man look like?” Johanna asked with a frown.
“Just a man, kinda tall, not fat, but not skinny, stupid toupee though. He was too old to be dressed the way he was. And he had an accent.”
“What kind of accent?”
“Like yours, only haughty, kinda egotistical.”
“Did he look like this?” she asked, taking her phone out of her pocket, and pulling up the picture Carson sent her of Tim Drake.
“Maybe, but he wasn’t in a suit. He was wearing jeans, kinda faded - you know - that expensive kind that looks like you’d had them for years. He was in a blue tee-shirt and wore a pair of runners. Looks like his hairpiece though.”
“You said you had to come back for the brush,” Johanna began again. “Where was Reginald’s horse?”
“I had him in the front stalls, like always.”
“Was anyone there?”
“Yeah, a couple of stable hands. They take the saddles off and water the horses, then they saddle them when the second half of the game is ready to start.”
“Hello, Boxer,” Samuel said, when he reached them.
“Hello Sam,” the old man said, shaking Samuel’s hand.
“How’s Lois, and that new grandbaby of yours?”
Johanna watched the two men with an awestruck expression on her face. She had been trying to get the man to talk and was barely able to get more than a full sentence out of him, and here Samuel was, talking to him like they were old chums.
“Have you met Queen Johanna?” Samuel asked, slipping his arm around the queen’s waist and snugging her closer to his side.
“Yep, just did.”
“We were talking about the day Reginald was killed,” Johanna said, looking to Samuel with a curious expression.
“Boxer, did you remember anything unusual that day?” Samuel asked, his arm around Johanna’s waist in a possessive way.
The older man looked to the couple, then drew a deep breath. He folded his arms on the handle of the rake he’d been using and wiped his brow again.
“Like I told the little miss, there was a guy here, but I didn’t see him after I sent him off, and that assistant of Reginald’s.”
“That’s no surprise. Oscar was always with the king.”
“Yeah, but this time was different,” Boxer said, tucking the cloth in his back pocket again. “They were real angry with each other. Reginald told him to leave and not come back. He said he was finished with him, and to clear out his office. Oscar started yelling at Reginald. Told him he’d get his, and he hadn’t heard the last of this, whatever this was.”
“That’s strange,” Samuel said with a frown. “It’s a story we’ve never heard.”
Johanna looked from Samuel to the man at his side.
“I’m sorry,” Samuel began. “Johanna, this is Mark Wyatt. He manages the stables and grounds.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Johanna said after shaking the manager’s hand.
“The pleasure is all mine, Your Majesty,” Wyatt answered. “I’ve just been telling Sam how impressed the island is with you. It’s nice to have someone on the throne who cares about the people.”
“Boxer, thank you for your help,” Samuel said, shaking the man’s hand, and turned around to leave. Before he took two steps, he paused, and turned back.
“Did you see either Oscar or the other guy after Reginald’s accident?” he asked.
“Nope,” Boxer said, then stopped and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I did see them. Not here though. I was walking home, like I always do, and he was coming out of the pub down the street. He got in a cab and left. I got to the crosswalk and turned around to see Oscar come stumbling out of the pub. He was drunk, and shouting about getting even, but I didn’t pay much attention. It was late, and I wanted to get home to dinner.”
“Thank you, Boxer, we appreciate the information. Tell Lois I said hello, and we need to get together for supper. I’m eager to see if I can beat you at pinochle.”
“Good luck with that,” Boxer said, smiling wide to reveal his yellow teeth. “I’m still the best.”
“I think what I’ll miss the most, is Reginald’s unique style of riding his horse,” Wyatt said as he walked the couple out of the stables.
“How’s that?” Johanna asked.
“He didn’t sit very often. He liked to stand up in the saddle. That’s the strange part about his accident. They had just started the second half of the game, and like always, Reginald stood up in the stirrups. He swung at the ball, and nearly fell off the horse, causing him to sit down. That’s when the horse started bucking him. I guess he was spooked by the king’s near fall.”
“Who unsaddled his horse?” Samuel asked.
“Boxer, I suppose. Everything happened so fast, it was like a blur.”
“Who are the other two hands that helped with the horses that day?” Johanna asked, pausing beside the stable, hearing Boxer’s rake scraping the ground inside the stalls.
“One was Kelil Afook, the other was his older brother, Talal.”
“I know both boys,” Samuel said. “They’re good kids.”
“And they know a great deal about horses.”
“By any chance, was the game recorded?” Johanna asked, looking across the field to where the men were still practicing.
“Yes, we record the games as well as the practice sessions. I have the film if you’d care to see it.”
“Yes, very much please.”
“I can send it to you, if you’d like.”
“That would be very helpful, thank you.”
“Send it to my email,” Samuel suggested. “Johanna has work to do, but we can watch it this evening after the festival.”
“Not a problem. I have to warn you though, it is a bit…graphic.”
“I have a strong stomach,” Johanna said with a wide grin. “I’d like to thank you again for your help.”
Johanna shook the manager’s hand again, then watched as Samuel did the same. They walked down the gravel path to the front stables and looked around. They were much less than what Johanna expected. More like glorified lean-tos, than stables. There were hitching posts where the horses would be tied up, and a long narrow trough for water. Each small cubical held a stand for the saddles, and the floor was covered in hay. The entire structure was quite sturdy, but obviously used only as a temporary shelter.
“Doesn’t Kelil Afook work for you?” Johanna asked, watching Samuel move about the interior of the stables.
“He and his brother both do, and they do know a lot about horses, just like Wyatt said. Sometimes, I think they understand what the horses are thinking.”
“Would they know if there was anything wrong with the animal?”
“Yes, they would. We’ll have to ask the boys if they remember anything.”
“You will make a great ruler,” she told him as they walked back to his truck. “Much better than I have.”
“Why would you say that?” he asked with a frown, pausing her from taking another step when he took her hand and stopped walking.
“You know everyone, you know their names, their families, their history. I couldn’t make Boxer say more than two words to me, then you came along, and he started spilling his guts. I can’t make people talk to me, no matter how hard I try. Only a ruler with the knowledge of their home can do that. I’m an outsider, and I always will be.”
“That’s not true. You’re most likely the best ruler we’ve ever had. You’ve far outshined Angelique II. In fact, I can’t recall a ruler since Black Jack who has done as much for Westerly, then you have.”
“I can do material things,” she told him. “I can create plans, and pay for supplies, and knock people back into place, but I can’t take care of their emotional needs. Physically, I can give them food, arrange clothing, even find them homes, but you can give them the support they need most. You can offer them love and compassion. I can’t do that. I don’t know how.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. You have shown compassion and expressed love and kindness since you came to this island. Look what you did in Northern Shores, and for the Summerhays’. You reunited a family and gave them a chance for a new life. You gave thousands of people hope, which they have never had before. I can’t do that. I don’t have the intelligence to guide them the way you have.”
Samuel wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her to his chest, kissing her lips gently. He had to make her understand how important she was to Westerly, and to him.
“Perhaps with my intellect and your heart, we can rule as a team,” she whispered.
“I like the sounds of that,” he chuckled, hugging her close to his chest. “I cannot imagine a better future for our people, or for us.”
The day progressed slowly, with the noise of the festival echoing through the palace walls. Mrs. Reynolds and the kitchen staff had spent the past week making pies and cakes for the judging, as well as sweets, pastries, and puddings. Russell had set up four-hour shifts for the staff, so they could enjoy the games and rides, as much as the normal visitor.
Samuel uploaded the film Wyatt sent to Johanna’s computer, and they watched it in the solitude of her office. Wyatt hadn’t been joking about it being graphic, but it wasn’t the torture of the accident that had her mind peeked. It was the images of the men lurking around the stables that caught her attention, and particularly the one in front that made her blood boil.
Johanna sat at her desk, trying to sort out the missing pieces of the puzzle plaguing her every thought. She had managed to close the doors on the electronics factory in England, using the excuse that the machines needed updating. The bank accounts were locked from anyone getting into them, and the accountants had begun working on the books. Over the past twenty years, they had discovered more than eight million pounds that had been skimmed off the profits of the company, and all paths led back to Tim Drake.
With a little arm twisting, she managed to have Lady Catherine’s body exhumed, and an autopsy performed. Even after all these years, her tissue showed significant vitamin K usage. With her medical record and history, her cause of death was changed to accidental overdose, though the coroner agreed to hold off filing his report for one week. With luck, she would have some answers that might change his decision.
Johanna looked at the clock. It was half past four in the afternoon. The closing fireworks for the festival was this evening, and she had to be present for it, but until then, she could get some much-needed work finished. She contacted Ward Carson, who believed he had some information on Tim Drake that would help with finding the nurse who was with Lady Catherine when she died. He also managed to convince the forensic department of Scotland Yard to come out to Cherrington Cross and reinvestigate Lord Charles’ death.
After four days of recreating the incident, the cause of her grandfather’s death was changed to homicide. The news began eating up the information, like a starving dog went for a bowl of food. With her wedding, only days away, she didn’t have time to deal with the additional questions from the press. Instead, she managed to release a message stating that she had no comment until the police investigation was complete.
Samuel had been scarce the past few days, but he had a lot of work to do at Spring Arbor, before their wedding. They did manage a couple of nights alone, at his house, and a few hours of passionate lovemaking. It was the only part of the day she looked forward to. She knew he was concerned about her recent case of vomiting, but it was slowly getting better. She was even able to handle the smell of eggs without expelling her entire stomach.
Johanna opened the email from Carson, reading the information he had found on Tim Drake. With his background of auto theft, petty larceny, forgery, and military knowledge of explosives, he was turning out to be a dangerous adversary. The man was a friend of her father’s, so he knew the family well, just as her grandfather said. The more she learned, the more she was beginning to think they found the man behind the deaths of her grandparents, and the accident that took her parents away from her.
Carson said he had spoken to Lady Catherine’s physician. He said the doctor told him he was going to send a nurse out to Cherrington Cross, but the last time he’d seen Lady Catherine, she told him she had a nurse working with her. At the time, he thought his assistant had contacted the employment agency and arranged one. He never thought to discuss it with his staff after that. So long as Lady Catherine had someone with her, that was all he cared about.
Johanna continued to read the email and frowned when Carson told her he found the nurse. The description matched a woman who came to the electronics’ plant to see Drake, the day they were closing the doors. She claimed to be his daughter, but the information he pulled up on the man indicated that he had no children. Johanna opened the image he’d taken of her at the office and frowned. The woman was older, but there was no doubt, it was her.
Carson told her, the woman was offered a drink while the security team was helping Drake clear out his office. When she finished, he took the glass and slipped it into his pocket, then ran the fingerprints through his computer. The prints matched those found on Lady Catherine’s medicine bottles. Her name was Roxanne Parker, but she was not his daughter. Her birth certificate had the father listed as Roger Parker, Drake’s chauffeur, though she did have a connection to one of Westerly’s own citizens.
Ward Carson pieced together a bit of the puzzle himself. He learned that Martha Drake had become pregnant with the chauffeur’s baby only a week after being married to Tim Drake. Though the knowledge of the child was far from being a surprise to the man, he often listed Roxanne as his ward, but never gave her his name.
The more she read, the more she learned, the angrier she was becoming. She wanted the woman to answer questions about Lady Catherine’s last days, and she wanted to have this entire affair put to rest. She was tired of dealing with it and wanted it all to end.
With a heavy sigh, she closed her email and pulled up the details to her wedding. It was going to be an elaborate affair, despite how much she and Samuel wanted it to be simple and intimate. She supposed she couldn’t argue too loudly. She was, after all, the first queen to marry in nearly four hundred years.
“Am I disturbing you?” Samuel asked as he pushed the door to her office open.
“I was thinking about the arrangements for the wedding,” she told him, shifting her position in the chair.
“Does your mind ever stop?” he asked with a chuckle.
“I don’t think so, but then again, the work never ends.”
“I hope you’re planning on a few hours of our honeymoon, where I’m the only thing on your mind,” he teased her as he took his usual seat across from her.
“I’d like a lot more than a few hours,” she laughed.
“I think I can give you reason to stop thinking for a while,” he smiled at her, then looked around the silent room. “When are the kids coming home?”
“I don’t know, later I guess. I promised to take in the fireworks with them.”
“Am I invited?”
“Of course,” she assured him with a wide grin.
“You could come home with me tonight. We won’t have to worry about being interrupted.”
“That would be a blessing,” she answered. “I’m getting tired of constantly being interrupted by Hope and Faith. I understand all of this is new, and they’re still trying to settle into a normal routine, but I haven’t had any privacy since we came home.”
“Give it some time. Once we’re married, they’ll learn what doors are for.”
Russell arrived at the stroke of four, as he always did, with Penny following behind with a silver tray of pastries and coffee. Johanna watched the girl sit it on the table, then curtsied softly and hurried out of the room.
“Supper will be late tonight, with Beverly and the kitchen staff at the festival,” Russell told them. “I hope the pastries will hold you until then.”
“They’ll be fine, thank you,” Johanna sighed. “I thought you were going to join your wife today?”
“I will be going in a few minutes. I wanted to make certain you were settled. I have instructed Penny to stay alert for anything you may need until I return.”
“Just go and enjoy yourself. We’ll be fine for a few hours. I think I’ll even attempt my hand at pouring my own coffee.”
Russell smiled then nodded and walked to the door. He paused for a moment and turned around, then slowly opened the door and left.
“He’s not used to taking time off,” Samuel told her, watching her walk to the sofa before joining her. “When Reginald was alive, the staff rarely had time off for anything, especially if there was enjoyment to be had.”
“I never paid much attention to anyone, the few times I was here, but I hope life has calmed down since I took over. Russell has helped arrange work schedules and everyone gets two days off a week. It can never make up for the past, but I hope the future looks brighter for them.”
“There’s a sense of contentment in the palace that was never there before. I think the staff is finally enjoying their jobs, especially those women Reginald paid special attention to.”
“I’ll never understand how he could use the women the way he did,” Johanna commented, pouring the coffee into the two china cups.
“He used the excuse that he couldn’t be spared from the palace, but the truth was, he liked hard, rough sex, and unless he reserved the basement of the bordello, there was no place for him to play. That’s why he set up the playroom the way he had. The instruments were used to cause pain. He found pleasure in hurting people, especially young women. He was very sadistic, and he liked it that way.”
Johanna could feel her stomach jerk with the thoughts of how those instruments had been used, and she knew she was going to be sick. She stood and ran to the bathroom, followed by Samuel. She made it to the toilet in time to expel her recent repast. He stood by the door and frowned. This was getting out of hand. It had been over a week, and she’d been getting sick every day. If he didn’t know she was on birth control shots, he’d have sworn she was pregnant.
Several minutes passed before she felt confident enough to flush the toilet and stand up. She walked to the sink and turned on the cold water, rinsing her mouth out, and splashing cool water across her face.
“I think it’s time to talk to the doctor,” Samuel said in a quiet voice.
“I’m fine,” she insisted, drying her face off on a soft hand towel. “It will pass. It always does.”
“This is becoming a habit. If you don’t eat every couple of hours, you’re sick. If you eat too much, you’re sick. I feel helpless. We have to find out what’s happening, and get it fixed before it gets worse.”
“Samuel, I’m fine, I promise. It’s because of the stress. Once everything settles down, I’ll be back to normal. Now relax. We have more important things to take care of, including confronting the man responsible for Reginald’s death.”