Johanna watched as her guests sat in an anxious silence. Walter and Franny had been made aware of the events, as were the Readings, her parents, and Alissa and Martin, yet the rest of the room remained ignorant to the real reason for the evening.
“Miss Parker,” Johanna continued a few moments later. “I believe you were about to tell me why you deliberately poisoned my grandmother.”
“She wasn’t going to say a word,” Drake argued in a deep, angry voice.
“On the contrary. If she doesn’t explain her actions, I’ll send her to the dungeons and in the morning, she will receive a flogging in the Punishment Circle.”
“We’re British citizens, you cannot issue that sort of punishment,” Martha said in a small, frightened voice.
“Lord Oscar, would you care to enlighten Mrs. Drake to the laws of Westerly?” Johanna asked with a wicked grin.
“She’s aware of the laws,” Oscar said with an angry glare.
“Oh, yes, I forgot. As your sister, she was born and raised on Westerly. It has been some time since you were here, however. I’d say, forty years. Isn’t that right, Martha? You left shortly after discovering that you were pregnant with Lord Sorensen’s child. My, my, my. What a tangled web we weave.”
“How…how did you know…” Martha stuttered.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time researching and investigating the deaths of my grandparents, not to mention the disappearance of the Painted Lady. It was your bomb that was planted in the engine of the plane, wasn’t it Mr. Drake?”
“I had nothing to do with that,” the man said in a stern voice as he stood from his chair and paced his way across the room to the fireplace.
“Yes, you did, only not as I originally assumed,” Johanna clarified. “Reginald was researching the disappearance of the plane, as well, and he was convinced you were the saboteur. But it wasn’t you. Well, not exactly. You made the bomb, but you weren’t the one to place it on the Painted Lady, were you?”
“I…don't know what you’re talking about.”
“Why do you people insist on lying?” she asked with a heavy sigh. “You made the bomb, but it was Lord Oscar who placed it on the Painted Lady. I thought the picture I received from the security cameras looked a bit odd. Drake has always been on the robust side, but the man in the footage was tall and thin. Drake stole the van from the movie set in London, and you used it that day, didn’t you Lord Oscar?” she asked staring directly at her cousin’s assistant.
“You stole the money from the bordello account, and gave it to your sister, but it was meant for Drake. He wanted everything money could buy, but that wasn’t enough. Drake wanted more, so he started stealing from my father’s company. You learned Father was investigating Drake from Reginald, but you couldn’t risk your lover going to jail. You talked Drake into making a bomb, and you placed it on the plane the day they were leaving.”
“Nobody knew we were leaving, except for Father,” Edward said with a frown.
“But Papa told Reginald, who told Oscar. He left for England the same night and arrived at Cherrington Cross long enough to get the bomb. He was almost caught planting it. He finished within seconds of you arriving at the airport. The security tapes show the van leaving twenty seconds before you drove up.”
“I didn’t know he was going to put the bomb on the plane,” Drake said angrily. “He said he had to put a stop to the investigation. I thought he wanted to burn the factory or destroy the evidence. If I had known what his plans were…”
“You would have warned Edward,” Oscar snapped angrily. “You were always lusting after the wrong men.”
“You thought yourself in love with my father,” Johanna continued, feeling stronger as the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. “You were the one who tried to run my parents off the road, but you didn’t want to hurt him. You wanted to kill my mother, so you could step in and act as the friend, the confident, he would need.”
“What makes you so smart about all of this?” Julius said in his usual, arrogant tone of voice.
“Oh, I’m not finished. There’s King Reginald’s murder to contend with as well,” Johanna answered, watching the others turn to her with wide eyes.
“Reginald wasn’t murdered,” Lord Sorensen said in a tone that was less convincing than normal.
“Yes, he was, and you were the leading force behind your son’s tampering with his saddle. All it took was placing a spur in the blanket, and once Reginald sat down, it sent the horse into a tizzy. Reginald wasn’t prepared for the strange reaction, but the pain the horse was feeling drove him onward, resulting in the untimely demise of the king.”
“You have no proof,” Julius said looking smugly at the queen.
“On the contrary,” Johanna said, nodding to Samuel who removed the photos printed from the film Mr. Wyatt had sent them, from his breast pocket. “I believe these will shine a different light on the subject at hand.”
Samuel handed the photos to Edward, who looked through them with Juliet staring over his shoulder. They passed the photos silently to Alissa and Martin, who passed them on to the Carringtons. By the time they reached Julius, there was no doubt in their minds who had caused the accident that took Reginald’s life.
“So, let’s pull everything into a proper timeline,” Johanna said, watching the angry look grow across Julius’ tanned features. “Martha became pregnant with Lord Sorensen’s child, but her sister was engaged to marry him. She had no choice but to leave Westerly, with the aid of Ethan Oscar. He, in turn, arranged for her to marry Tim Drake, Oscar’s long-time lover, but it was a marriage in name only, since Drake preferred the more masculine side of life.”
Johanna took her glass and slowly walked to her chair as she spoke, explaining the details in order, mentally watching the puzzle begin to take shape.
“In exchange for Drake’s assistance in saving his sister’s dignity and name, Oscar promised a significant stipend, but the only way to do that was to embezzle it from the accounts he was entrusted to oversee. Then, using his influence on Reginald, Oscar convinced the king to appoint a team of elders to oversee the island’s daily activities, so he could devote more time to his horses.”
She paused as she took a drink from her glass, then glanced to Samuel who was frowning.
“With Eric Sorensen in charge of the new Elders committee, Oscar was able to dip his fingers into the accounts without anyone noticing,” she continued, watching Samuel walk to the bar and pour a glass of juice. “But Reginald became suspicious and started doing a bit of his own investigating. Meanwhile, back in England, my father was doing a bit of snooping on his own. He learned about a large amount of money being skimmed off the books from the company managed by no other, then his good friend, Tim Drake.”
Johanna frowned as Samuel silently sat the glass of juice beside her, then took her whiskey and moved it to the table beside him, allowing her to continue her story.
“Oscar warned Drake to keep his nose clean, then went to England with the excuse to visit his sister. While he was there, he convinced Drake to stay close to my parents and see what they knew about his sticky fingers. Unknown to Oscar, Drake had fancied himself attracted to Edward and devised his own plans of getting closer to him. If he were able to kill my mother, he would be able to comfort his old friend, and hopefully worm his way further into his…shall we say, life.”
“That’s disgusting,” Martha said under her breath as she glared across the room to her husband.
“Once Oscar discovered Drake’s stupid acts of stalking my parents, he convinced Drake to design a bomb. Not a very powerful one, just strong enough to cause some problems. Drake thought he meant to destroy the evidence against him, so he did as he was asked, but Oscar had other plans of his own. He not only wanted to eliminate Edward Carrington from finding out more about his lover’s illicit activities, but he also wanted to make certain my father was out of Drake’s life forever. He placed the bomb on board the Painted Lady but rigged it to blow up once they reached thirty-five thousand feet.”
“How did he do that?” Alissa asked, getting caught up in the story.
“Oscar wired the bomb into the plane’s navigation system. Any amateur can do it, with the right information, and a little determination,” Johanna confirmed. “Reginald convinced my grandfather that the plane had been sabotaged and began his own investigation into the disappearance of the Painted Lady. At the same time, Papa picked up the investigation my father had started. He had proof of everything and was planning on sending it on to Scotland Yard, but Drake was worried about his own freedom. He sent my grandfather a message saying that he wanted to come clean with his past. Instead, they argued, and when my grandfather turned his back, Drake stabbed him. But it wasn’t serious enough to kill him, so he took the gun he’d brought with him and shot him.”
“Very convincing,” Oscar said in a haughty voice. “But where’s your proof?”
“You were in attendance at my grandfather’s funeral, representing Westerly and Reginald,” Johanna continued. “Lady Catherine told you about the evidence my grandfather had against Drake. In passing, Lady Catherine told you that her physician wanted to hire a nurse for her, but she was reluctant. She had never wanted anyone around who would tell her what to do. You told her you knew of a nurse and arranged for Drake to send Roxanne to Cherrington Cross. She had orders to find the evidence Papa was keeping on Drake, but after several days, you began to worry and felt it was taking too long. So, you came up with another plan. That’s when you helped Roxanne switch the aspirin in Lady Catherine’s bottle with Vitamin K. The coroner said her body had significant traces of Vitamin K, which was the cause of her death.”
“What’s Vitamin K have to do with her death?” Franny asked with a frown.
“Vitamin K is used to help thicken the blood of people with a bleeding disorder,” Johanna continued, her eyes locking with the frightened image of Roxanne. “Lady Catherine was on blood thinners. During the activities of her last day, she complained of having a headache. She was seen taking large amounts of the pills she assumed were aspirin. But they weren’t, were they, Roxanne?”
Johanna paused again, glancing to Samuel who had remained silent. She was eager to get this night over with and take the weight of her crown off her head.
“The aspirin bottle had evidence of being tampered with,” she continued after taking another drink. “Lady Catherine trusted her nurse, but that was the worst mistake she could have made. Scotland Yard has the coroner’s report, as well as the medicine bottles. I’m sure it will be an interesting reunion when you return home.”
“I didn’t want to do it,” Roxanne said as tears fell down her cheeks.
“Be silent,” Drake ordered.
“I can’t,” Roxanne began as sobs shook her voice. “I’ve lived with the guilt of what I’ve done for fifteen years. You don’t know what it’s been like. The nightmares never end.”
Roxanne turned back to Johanna, her tears flowing freely. Her hands shook as she wiped the moisture on her face and drew a ragged breath.
“It’s exactly as you said,” she whispered. “I never wanted to hurt Lady Catherine, but I was afraid of what would happen to Tim if the information made it to Scotland Yard. Uncle Ethan was the one who switched the medication. She’d been taking it for days, but that last day…she developed a headache in the morning, and started taking the pills to help, but it only got worse. I tried to get the bottles before anyone discovered them, but Bronson found them and took them from me. I left the castle as quickly as I could. I knew she was dying, but I was afraid of the doctor discovering what I’d done.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Julius said, standing up from his seat and adjusting his tuxedo jacket.
“But you haven’t heard the rest of the tale,” Johanna said as the guards adjusted their rifles across their shoulders, silently assuring the man he needed to sit down and shut up. “Once both of my grandparents were dead, you felt you were free from the past, and you continued your normal activities. Reginald, however, was still suspicious and continued his own investigation into my parents' disappearance, as well as my grandparents' demise.”
She paused as Julius sat down and crossed his legs. He was nervous, and she could see it, but she wasn’t about to let him off the hook just yet.
“Oscar continued his skimming of the books, making the bordellos poorer as the Drakes became richer. Reginald discovered your activities, and you argued. You told Sorensen your game was finished, but he wasn’t ready to lose his position or the money you often shared with him. Everyone was tired of Reginald’s rule and thought that having a female on the thrown would be better than the old king. Sorenson convinced Julius that he would be able to worm his way into my life, and with the assistance of the Elders, he would be the next King of Westerly. During halftime, Oscar kept Reginald occupied by arguing with him, while Drake acted as a decoy to Julius, who rigged the blanket of Reginald’s horse. It was all a matter of timing. Once the game started, everyone dispersed quickly so they wouldn’t be around when the accident happened.”
The room’s occupants stared at each other awkwardly. There was no denying, she got the story correct and the final steps were up to her now.
“You underestimated the type of woman I was,” she continued with a half grin. “Despite your continued objections of the way I rule the island, you never anticipated that I was strong enough, or intelligent enough to piece together the past. Now, with your illicit behavior behind you, all that’s left is your punishment.”
Johanna nodded to her guards, watching two of them step aside as the doors opened and another dozen walked into the room.
“As Queen of Westerly, I charge you with embezzlement of Cherrington Cross Electronics and the bordello account of the island, attempted murder of Edward and Juliet Abbott-Worthington, and the murders of Charles and Catherine Abbott-Worthington, and finally, the murder of King Reginald.”
“What’s going to happen to Martha Drake?” Edward asked as they reclined comfortably in the quiet room.
“She was a party to the embezzlement, but she was innocent of the other activities,” Johanna said, leaning into Samuel’s embrace. “She needs to be punished for not contacting the authorities in the first place.”
“What a night,” Alissa commented, taking a drink of her wine. “How were you able to piece everything together?”
“Papa’s letter we found in Reginald’s belongings helped, along with his timeline of events that took Papa and Lady Catherine’s lives. It wasn’t until supper, when I saw the way Oscar, Sorensen, and Drake were glaring at each other, that I put the final touches to the events. I wasn’t positive how everything went down until I saw the expression in their eyes as I put the events in order.”
“Do you still believe you’re cursed?” Samuel asked her, kissing the top of her head, free from the heavy tiara she’d been wearing.
The room was silent as they waited for Johanna to answer. It was a question they all had been wondering about since suspecting that she was pregnant. They all knew, including Edward and Juliet, that Johanna would never have allowed Samuel into her life, or into her bed, if she didn’t have strong feelings for him. But was it strong enough to be love?
“I’ve spent most of my life believing that everything that happened was my fault,” she answered honestly. “In five years, I lost everyone who loved me. As a small child, alone in the world, it was an easy excuse to embrace. It comforted me during some very confusing and frightening times. The older I got, the less I believed in curses, but I was still afraid of getting close to anyone.”
“You know we all love you,” Alissa told her with a steady expression. “No matter how angry or distant you were, it didn’t stop us from caring very deeply for you.”
“I understand that, and I’m sorry for the way I’ve always treated you. You’ve done more for me than anyone else could have. You gave me an amazing life, with more experiences than I would have ever had if I had chosen to stay in England. Tomorrow, when I face our prisoners in Westerly Hall, I will be removing Eric Sorensen from his Region. Once his accounts have been settled, I’m going to need a new Leader. I won’t leave the Region without one and risk another fiasco as what happened in Northern Shores. As thanks for all you’ve done for me, I’d like to offer you the position. It won’t be the same as digging up the past in the hot desert, but perhaps it’s a way of paying you back for everything you’ve done for me and giving you a chance to start a new life - that is, if Martin is willing to join you.”
“I decided a long time ago, my life is tied to Alissa’s, regardless of what part of the world she’s in,” Martin said, kissing the woman’s hand as he lifted it to his lips.
“As for you,” Johanna said, looking back to her parents. “Over the past few days, Samuel and I have come to the realization that we’re going to have a child. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do this on my own. Even with Samuel by my side me, I’m going to want someone around who is strong enough to deal with my attitude, and willing to help me understand what’s happening. I’d like you to stay on Westerly. For a while, at least. Cherrington Cross will always be there, and you can manage your factories from here, but if you’re set on leaving, the castle in England is yours. I’ll sign the title over to you, and you can pick up where you left off.”
“We’ve spent twenty years away from you,” Edward began, fighting the emotion that threatened his voice. “I don’t think your mother and I are all that eager to be any further away, then we are right now. Besides, Samuel is going to need an unbiased shoulder to lean on when your emotions kick in.”
“Samuel has managed to see me at my best, and worst, and he’s always been there despite how many times I’ve told him to leave. If he can handle my temper, he can handle my…condition.”
“Neither of us is ready for a family,” Samuel said with a soft smile. “It’s going to be a change, and I was hoping for a few years of pampering you and showing you the perverted side of the island. But I wouldn’t change a single moment with you. Even as angry as you make me, I’ll never stop loving you.”
Johanna was silent as the others held their breath. It was that word, that L word that she had run from her entire life. She fought against it, she hid from it, she even did her best to ignore it, but it was there, spoken freely and out of hiding.
“I think you’re rather odd,” Johanna told him, standing up from the sofa. “Like offering me juice instead of my normal whiskey and making me realize I had to start considering new aspects of my life. But when the day is over, and I’m in your arms, I know…” she paused as she drew a deep breath and smiled down to him. “I love you too.”
“You have stripped this island of more resources than a single person can count,” Johanna began, sitting behind the bench at the far end of the room.
The trial of the prisoners began promptly at ten o’clock. As much as she was anxious to have this all behind her and go on to the rehearsal of her wedding, she wanted Westerly to understand she would not allow anyone to alter the peacefulness her ancestors fought so hard to create. It was time to set to right the past and finish the nightmare she had lived with her entire life.
“You have stolen from the people and tried your best to impoverish those you felt were beneath you. Your vanity and greed cost the island it’s ruler and took my family away from me. As angry as I am for my personal losses, it will never compare to the contempt I feel when I consider what you have done to Westerly.”
Johanna paused for a moment as she opened the ancient book of laws, established by Black Jack, the island’s first ruler.
“Martha Drake,” she continued, fighting to control the sudden jumping of her nerves. “Your crimes are very minor compared to those of the rest of your group. The only thing you are guilty of is being an accomplice to the embezzlement of your brother, Ethan Oscar, and your husband, Tim Drake. For this crime, I sentence you to six months in the dungeons before turning you over to the British authorities.”
The occupants of the room began to mumble softly but quieted down as a guard stepped forward and took the woman by the arm, pulling her back to the first row of seats and sat her down. Her turn was over, and it was time to continue with the more serious crimes.
“Roxanne Parker,” Johanna continued. “You have been found guilty, by your own confession, of poisoning Lady Catherine Abbott-Worthington of Cherrington Cross England. Despite this crime affecting me personally, it does not affect the island of Westerly. This was an act committed on England’s soil. Therefore, I am forgoing your sentencing and allowing England to handle your crimes. You will remain in the custody of my guards, and in the dungeons, until you are handed over to the British authorities, along with your mother.”
Johanna glanced to Edward who looked sternly at the woman, but she had already discussed this with him. It directly affected both of them, and they agreed together, to allow England to sentence her for her crimes.
“Tim Drake,” she continued a moment later as Roxanne was moved out of the way by a second guard. “Your crimes are against my family, more particularly toward my father. You have been charged with the murder of Lord Charles Abbott-Worthington, Duke of Cherrington Cross England. You are charged with creating the bomb that ultimately stranded my parents on an island, thousands of miles away from help. After discussing this with Edward and Juliet Abbott-Worthington, we have agreed to allow England to decide your punishment. As for your involvement in King Reginald’s murder…”
Johanna paused as the room came alive with gasps and mumbling, then rapped the round polished stone used for centuries on the wooden bench to bring order to the room.
“You were not directly responsible for what happened to King Reginald, but you were a party to the event, knowing full well what was intended. Because of this, you will receive five lashes in the Punishment Circle, before being handed over to British authorities.”
Again, a guard stepped forward and took the man by the arm, pulling him back to sit next to Roxanne. Johanna allowed the room a few moments to mumble before rapping the stone again. The weight of her crown and the robes around her shoulders were beginning to give her a headache, and she was anxious to have the event over with.
“Lord Eric Sorensen, Lord Ethan Oscar, and Lord Julius Sorensen,” she said, addressing all three as a unity. “You have been charged and found guilty of the events that caused the death of King Reginald. Eric Sorensen, it was your idea that created the situation, but it was your son who carried out the task. Lord Oscar, you and your brother-in-law are residents of Westerly, and therefore, your punishment is mine to dictate. As outlined in Westerly’s Proclamation, established by Black Jack, you are both hereby sentenced to twenty lashes with the flog.”
Johanna banged the bench with the polished stone again, glaring at the crowd of curious spectators.
“As for your act of embezzlement, Lord Sorensen you are found guilty of being an accomplice to the acts of Lord Oscar. You have also been found guilty for benefiting from the closure of the factories of Northern Shores, Greenly, Shear Peaks, and the Highlands, and for accepting monetary compensation for the sale of land under the control of the throne. You are hereby stripped of your Region and sentenced to fifteen lashes.
“Lord Oscar, for your acts of betrayal against the island of Westerly, for your act of embezzlement, and for your involvement in the death of Lady Catherine Abbott-Worthington, you are sentenced to twenty lashes. If you survive the flogging, you and your brother-in-law will be placed in a boat, as history has dictated, and cast off the island. If you do not survive, your bodies will be thrown to the sharks who inhabit the Pool of Trepidation, on the southern side of the island.”
The guards stepped forward and took the men by the arms and stepped them backward to their seats as the room’s noise grew a few octaves.
“Julius Sorensen,” Johanna said, loud enough to bring the room back under control. “You have been found guilty of the assassination of King Reginald. It was your cowardly act that caused the death of the king. According to the laws and regulations set down by Black Jack, you are hereby sentenced to fifty lashes in the Punishment Circle. If you survive, you will be placed in the boat alongside your father and uncle and cast off Westerly forever. If you do not survive, your body will be fed to the sharks along with that of your relatives.”
Johanna paused as she stared into the eyes of the man who looked at her with horror. She knew the punishment was harsh, but she had no choice. Black Jack was unforgiving to anyone who killed the ruler of the island or even attempted to harm one of the royal family.
“This has been a difficult tribunal for me personally, as well as that of the position in which I hold. Because of the acts of these six people, my entire family was stolen from me, the island lost its king, and Westerly suffered years of torment and abuse. I have always considered myself a child of God, and I’ve tried to follow his commandments in everything I do. But I have also sworn to uphold and protect the laws of this island. For that reason alone, I offer you all one last sentiment. I pray for your souls, and pray that God forgives you, even though man never shall.”