She stretched as high as she could, barely reaching the top shelf. There weren’t very many books, more knick-knacks and framed photos, but the ones that were there was going to be searched.
After Johanna finished reading Reginald’s journal about her parents, she hurriedly redressed in her shorts and tank-top and went to her office, where she was when Russell opened the door three hours later. She had been searching every drawer, every shelf, and every file cabinet in the room, but had yet to find the timeline her cousin had mentioned.
“Your Highness,” Russell said hesitantly, a deep frown pulling his bushy brows across his gray eyes. “Janessa is here to help you dress, and Captain Carrington has arrived to speak with you.”
“Alright,” she answered, though she really wasn’t listening to what the man said.
She pulled the three thick books down from the top shelf, setting them on the shelf beneath. She opened the covers one at a time and flipped through the pages, hoping to find a loose note, or something to lead her to where Reginald had placed his research.
“What are you doing?” Samuel asked when he walked into the room.
There were stacks of books sitting on the coffee table, the sofa, the desk, and the floor. More than fifty books had been removed and searched without success. Even the vases had been shaken out, but to no avail.
Johanna looked over her shoulder with a quick glance, then turned her attention back to the book on the shelf. This one was like the others, empty and free from loose papers, highlighted passages, or handwritten notes.
“I’m looking for something, duh. What are you doing here?” she asked without looking at the man again.
“I’m your personal guard, remember?” Samuel answered as he moved further into the room and opened the top book on the stack of six that sat on the corner of her desk.
“I told you I wanted another guard,” she replied with more venom in her tone then she intended.
“I would never put one of my men in the line of fire.”
“I am not accustomed to harming innocent people.”
“Does that mean you think I’m guilty of something?”
“What do you think?” she snapped as she moved back down the ladder, bringing the books with her.
“Your Highness,” Russell began hoping to put an end to the argument threatening to taint the beginning of the day. “Shall I tell Janessa you’ll be with her soon?”
“What?” Johanna asked, setting the books on a stack at the end of the sofa. “Oh, yes…that’s fine. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
“Very well,” Russell answered, taking one last look around the disaster that was once an organized office.
He closed the door behind him, allowing the two younger people to continue in private, then began down the stairs to speak with the seamstress waiting for the future queen.
“I wanted to speak with you before you became overwhelmed with today’s activities,” Samuel began as he watched Johanna turn toward him with her hands on her hips.
Her hair was pulled back in a long ponytail, but several strands had worked their way free, caressing her cheeks and hanging across her shoulders. Her tight blue tank top hugged her torso so well, the outline of her breasts was visible to his eager eyes, and her shorts were so small, he could see the very bottom of her buttocks in the back.
“Why?” she asked glancing up to him again before moving to the corner of the room where a small safe sat behind a false cabinet front.
“I’ve had a chance to think over what happened yesterday,” he began. “I’m willing to admit I may have acted a bit…”
“Bullish, pigheaded, chauvinistic, arrogant,” she said finishing his sentence for him.
“I was going to say hasty,” he clarified as he watched her kneel in front of the safe. “You can’t blame me for worrying about your well-being. Keeping you in one piece is very important for everyone on Westerly.”
“I’m capable of protecting myself. I’ve been doing it for a long time now.”
“Perhaps, but I’m not Nora. I don’t know the limits of your abilities.”
“Your horse was safe and so was I. If anything was going to set the beast off, it was the way you jerked me from her back.”
“I didn’t want her to buck you off. You didn’t have a saddle to hold on to.”
“No, I didn’t,” she answered, removing a leather box from the safe and turning to set it on the four books stacked on the corner of her desk. “I had a good hold of her mane. If she was to buck me off, she would have had her hair pulled. No woman likes her hair being pulled, animal or human.”
“I’m sorry,” Samuel said a few moments later, watching as she rummaged through the box. “I’d like to be able to put this behind us and move forward.”
“Can you do that, knowing I’ll object to you stopping me from doing what I want?”
“I can try, but I won’t stand by and allow you to put yourself in danger.”
“You’re my guard, not my parent. You’re supposed to be following my orders. If I tell you to leave me alone and let me…jump off a cliff, then I expect you to do it.”
“If jumping off that cliff means you’ll be injured or worse, then I will object, and I will lock you in your room if I have to.”
“You’re impossible,” she mumbled as she pulled out several stacks of Westerly paper dollars, some old gold coins, a few pieces of jewelry, and Reginald’s passport. Drawing a heavy sigh, she closed the lid and turned to scan the room again.
“What are you looking for?” he asked with a frown.
“Some documents Reginald had,” she told him as a knock sounded at the door again.
She turned to see Russell as he walked in. He looked at her with a frustrated expression on his aging face.
“Your Highness, time is slipping away,” he told her with an edge of irritability to his voice. “You have to get ready for your coronation.”
“I’m aware of that,” she said matching his irritation with her own. “It’s not like they can start without me. If I’m late, then it’s my prerogative. I’ll get dressed in a few minutes.”
“Perhaps I can help you find whatever it is you’re looking for?” Russell suggested.
“Reginald had information he received from the police in England,” she told them. “He wrote about it in a journal, and I want to find those papers.”
“A while back, the king did receive a package from Scotland Yard,” Russell told her, capturing her full attention.
“Do you know where he might have put it?” she asked anxiously.
“No ma’am, but he may have placed it in his safe.”
“I’ve already searched it,” she said with a tone of disappointment to her voice.
“Not that safe, the other one. That little safe was used for items he used more often.”
“There’s another one? Where is it?”
“Behind the painting of King Ian and Queen Angelique,” Russell told her as he made his way around the stacks of books to the large ten-foot-high painting behind the desk.
He pushed against the bottom right corner until they heard a click, then pulled the painting aside as it made a popping noise. Behind it was a large steel door, approximately four feet tall and three feet wide.
“I don’t have the combination, but King Reginald would put anything he felt was of the most importance in here,” Russell told her as she hurried around Samuel to where the butler stood. “I know the most valuable family jewels are in here, as well as the titles to his personal properties.”
“Where would he keep the combination?” she asked looking at the electronic lock.
“Perhaps it’s in the other safe?” Samuel suggested.
“I’ve already looked through it. I didn’t see anything that could be a combination,” she answered.
“What about his ledgers?” Samuel asked. “Maybe he had the numbers written in one of them.”
“Numbers, of course,” she said turning back to her desk and pulling the top left drawer open.
She rummaged through the stacks of employee files she had been reviewing until she found the slip of figures she discovered the day she made the office her own.
Turning back to the safe, she reached up and began punching in the numbers. The first two attempts yielded no response, but the third one turned the numbers on the electronic panel green. Taking a deep breath, Johanna wrapped her hand around the handle and turned, pulling the heavy door open.
Inside the safe was a number of shelves, too high for her to reach. She pulled her desk chair to sit backwards against the wall, then began climbing up before Samuel could offer assistance. With a low growl, he moved to her side and steadied the chair from turning on her.
“Next time ask for help,” he scolded her, eager to smack the bottom that was so close to his face, but she didn’t seem to notice.
Johanna stretched as high as she could, then placed her foot inside the safe and pulled herself upward until she was practically inside the steel box. She was at eye level to the top shelf and had just reached in to remove the brown package when she felt two large hands on her hips. Glancing down, she saw Samuel directly behind her, the look of disapproval shining in his blue eyes.
“I swear woman,” he snarled, but stopped before he began another argument.
Johanna turned her attention back to the safe, trying to ignore the warm, firm grip holding her hips. She had to concentrate on what she was doing, not what she was feeling.
Taking the package down, she turned around, handing it to Russell who stood close beside Samuel’s shoulder. She then looked back into the safe and spotted three large wooden boxes. She knew she had to search everything, but she had no idea how she was going to pull them out and not fall.
“Get down,” Samuel told her as if reading her mind. “I’ll get the ladder.”
“I can do it, if you can support me,” she told him anxiously.
“I’ve got you. Just make it quick. You have a lot of people waiting for you and there’s not much time left.”
Johanna bit her bottom lip as she let go of the shelf and reached in for the first box. Samuel’s hands held her securely, allowing her to pull the boxes out of the safe, passing them down to the waiting arms of Russell. There was a brown wrapped package on the side of the shelf and she reached for it, handing it down to Russell.
Once the items were out of their dark hiding place, she moved her foot down. Samuel held her tightly until she was back on the chair, then took her hand and helped her back to the floor.
She opened the first box, the oldest appearing one of the three. It looked like a small treasure chest with leather straps across the top, and as she opened the lid, the scent of cedar filtered up to greet her. Inside, was more than a hundred gold coins. She took out one and noticed the image of a lion embossed on the front.
“Look at this,” she told the other two, handing one to each of them.
“This is really old,” Samuel told her.
“I wonder where they came from,” Russell said.
“I’ll bet its pirate gold,” Johanna said excitedly. “This is probably Black Jack’s stash. There’s always been a rumor that he hid a great treasure somewhere on this island, though nobody has ever found it.”
“Well there’s definitely a great stash here,” Samuel said, tossing the coin back into the box, listening to the tinkle as it settled with the others.
“I wonder why Reginald had it in the safe?” she asked as Russell set his coin back inside, then closed the lid again.
“Because of how valuable it is,” Samuel told her, taking the box and returning it to the shelf of the safe. “I can only imagine how much it’s worth.”
“I’ll have to check on this later,” she said absently as she opened the second box. “If it is worth anything, then the island is due for its share of the bounty.”
The second box was not as old as the first, but it was antique. Inside, was a number of jeweled rings and necklaces, earrings and bracelets, and several large broaches. There were six golden money clips, each one with the Abbott or Worthington family crests. Johanna lifted an old pocket watch by the chain as tears begin to sting her eyes.
“This is like my grandfather’s,” she said opening it up.
She wound the knob at the top and listened to the tinkling music. It brought back long forgotten memories of playing with her grandfather’s watch when she was a child. She would open it just to hear the tune, annoying Lady Catherine with the multiple times she would open and close it. Once, her grandfather told her the tune made him want to dance, so he got up, bowed to her, then took her hand and twirled around the parlor. They laughed and danced until the watch wound down.
Johanna slid her fingers along the long golden chain, down to the twenty-dollar gold piece at the end. The watch was at least a hundred years old, and very well cared for. There was a bit of wear around the edges, and there was evidence the chain had been repaired at one point in its life, but other than that, it was beautiful.
“We need to get you ready for your coronation,” Samuel told her gently.
His hand wrapped around her waist and she could feel the heat of his breath against her neck.
Johanna reluctantly put the watch back in the box and closed the lid, allowing Russell to replace it in the safe. She moved onto the last box. This one was very modern, highly polished cherry wood with a gold lock. The key was in the hole and she turned it, opening the lid. Inside were a number of photos. There were pictures of Reginald as a child, and several with his parents, then more of him as a young man with a beautiful blonde woman beside him. She turned one of the photos over and saw the simple inscription. Reggie and Emily the spring before their wedding.
“This was his wife,” she said more to herself than the men with her.
She continued to shift through the pictures and news clippings of his own coronation, and the announcements of his children’s births. She found the birth certificates of Reginald’s boys, Thomas and Andrew, along with a number of photos of the boys, and she sorted through each one. They were beautiful children, the eldest with blonde hair like his mother, the younger with dark hair like Reginald. There was a formal family picture of the four of them in front of a Christmas tree in the parlor. They looked happy and content with more than a dozen wrapped packages under the tree.
Beneath all the photos were the death certificates of the boys and their mother. Thomas’ death had been caused from complications sustained from a head injury. Andrew’s death certificate declared his death was caused from suffocation. Emily’s death certificate was with those of her sons’. The cause of her death was suicide.
“So sad,” Russell said. “She was such a lovely lady. So kind, and caring. She and Reginald were so much in love, and they adored their boys. They were good parents too. They were always together, playing on the beach, or hiking Kulila Ma. Thomas’ death destroyed the queen. She cried for weeks, until one night…”
“I can’t imagine the pain she must have gone through,” Johanna said closing the lid to the box, allowing Samuel to place it back where it came from.
“Life has a way of making people do things they normally wouldn’t do,” he said with a clenched jaw.
Johanna glanced up to him and saw the anger shining in his eyes. It was a subject he knew all too well.
“If they were in love, why wasn’t the curse broken by them?” she asked, hoping to distract the man’s personal memories.
“Because their marriage was arranged,” Russell clarified. “Reginald didn’t want to marry, but his father insisted he had to give the throne an heir. He didn’t even know Lady Emily until the day Arnold betrothed them. They spent a year together before the wedding, but Reginald was more interested in spending time at the bordellos then with her. It wasn’t until she gave birth to Master Thomas that they fell in love.”
“All the centuries of suffering because of one man’s arrogance,” she said, taking the brown package and pulling off the wrapping. Inside was a large manila envelope, thick and heavy.
“All that’s left is this,” she said as Samuel replaced the box of photos in the safe and closed the door, pulling the handle to lock it.
“You’re going to have to look at it later,” he told her sternly. “You’ve wasted enough time, and there’s still a lot to do before you have to leave.”
“It won’t take but a minute. I’ll take a quick look then I’ll go…hey,” she squealed watching as he pulled the envelope out of her grip.
“No more delays,” he ordered. “I’ll keep this safe for you until you’re finished, but you have to go get ready. Everyone is waiting for you, and it’s not going to look good if the queen is late for her own coronation.”
Reluctantly, Johanna surrendered. She knew he was right, but she desperately wanted to know what was in the package. She could tell by the return address and postmark it was from England, and it was not from Cherrington Cross.
“Go,” Samuel ordered stepping aside and waving his hand toward the door.
Johanna stood still listening to her own heartbeat. She wanted that envelope and she wasn’t going to relax until she got it.
“I promise, I’ll give it back to you when this is over,” Samuel assured her.
He slipped his arm around her waist again and walked her out into the hallway. Johanna glanced behind her to see Russell close the painting across the safe, then move out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Johanna paused for a moment in the passage outside her office as Russell hurried down the stairs, leaving her and Samuel alone. She looked up into the blue eyes that stared down at her and felt the skip of her heart within her chest.
Samuel tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear, then lightly caressed her jaw until he reached her chin. Slowly, he tipped her head up so he could see her beautiful face fully. Even with dust streaked across her cheek and nose, she was the loveliest woman he’d ever laid eyes on. The look in her eyes sent a wave of desire down his stomach to settle on the swell in his pants. For the second time in twenty-four hours, he longed to feel a woman’s touch.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he whispered.
“About the horse or…” her voice trailed off as he smiled.
“I’ll never be sorry for kissing you.”
Slowly, he leaned forward, moving his hand to hold the side of her face. Her skin was warm and soft, flawless with just a few faint freckles across her nose. He watched her violet eyes widen slightly as he moved closer to her, until his lips were a breath away from hers. Gently, he brushed her lips with his in an action that made his heart pound beneath his white tunic.
Samuel held his breath waiting for her to push him away, but when she didn’t he decided to go a little further. Just as he did yesterday, he very tenderly touched her lips with his, allowing them to remain for several beats of his heart. Desire began to build beneath the layer of ice he had encompassed his soul in, melting him with the yearning heat to feel more.
Hesitantly, he pressed his mouth against hers until he could feel the blood pulsating beneath his touch. Tipping her head and holding it as a willing prisoner, he kissed her firmly. Passion began to take control of him, and he slowly explored her lips, caressing them with the tip of his tongue until she moaned softly.
“Don’t hide your tongue from me,” he whispered against her mouth. “I want to play with it.”
Johanna had no idea what he meant until his tongue slipped between her lips. She tried to gasp but the sound melted in another moan as he gently began to caress her tongue with his. It was a sensation she had never experienced, and she found herself mocking his movements. The next moan she heard was not hers but his, as he pressed his lips against her hard.
This was nothing like yesterday and a part of her was thankful for it. If he had kissed her then, the way he was now…she had no idea where they would be this morning. Perhaps she wouldn’t have spent the long dark hours pacing the floor alone.
A faint warning echoed in the back of her mind, but she quickly stamped it down allowing the passion his touch created to embrace her. She wasn’t afraid of him, she wasn’t fearful of what he might do next, or what he may demand of her. Instead, she found her arms circling his neck as he pulled her closer to him. She could feel the heat of his body against hers as his tongue explored the depths of her mouth.
It was the most incredible feeling she’d ever experienced. A mixture of hunger and need burned in the pit of her stomach, then spread throughout her body, causing the tingle she always got whenever he was around to pulsate between her legs. She didn’t know how it happened, but she suddenly felt the firm hard wall against her back as he pressed her into it. His warm hand caressed her breast through the thin material of her tank top, and once again she moaned.
The heat grew until she was certain she would combust, but he didn’t relent. He continued to toy with her breast, gently squeezing it then pinching the pebble hard nipple, listening to the deep groan encased within her throat. She wanted more, she needed more, but she wasn’t sure how to make him understand.
Johanna felt his free hand travel down her side to her buttocks where he squeezed one of her firm cheeks. It was incredible. The heat was unbearable, the need demanding. He raised her leg up beside his hip, holding it against his body for a long moment before his hand slid up the outside of her thigh and beneath the leg of her shorts. His arousal pressed against her with the rock-hard need of his own, as he cupped and squeezed the firm cheek of her bottom.
From somewhere in the distance, she could hear her name being called, but refused to acknowledge it. She was in the embrace of the most incredible man she’d ever known, and she was enjoying the feel of it. Again, she heard her name, this time coming closer. Samuel didn’t let her go. He moved his mouth across her cheek to her neck where he nipped and licked a hot, moist path up to her ear. Johanna moaned as he caressed the lobe with his tongue, sucking it gently into his mouth as his long fingers moved to the moistness between her legs. He played with her labia beneath the leg of her shorts for just a few moments until he moaned savagely in her ear.
“I have to let you go,” he groaned against her.
“No,” she whispered, feeling his deep moan vibrating against her breast.
“We don’t have enough time,” he said in a soft, husky voice. “God, what I wouldn’t do to stop time right now.”
Johanna moved her head to capture his lips, this time thrusting her tongue into his mouth. She gasped as his long finger began to toy with her wet clitoris, moaning as the need overtook her. She played with his tongue as his fingers continued to caress her, then the sting of realization came when she felt him insert his long finger into her tight body.
“Johanna, where are you?” she heard her aunt call out, then opened her eyes quickly.
“Stop,” she told him, pushing at his strong chest until he let go of her and took a step back.
The look in his eyes seemed to echo what had just happened. The bright blue had turned dark, and his breath was a soft, ragged pant. He placed his hand on the wall beside her in an attempt to control his raging hormones, then lowered his head to her shoulder. The sharp sting eased beneath his finger, and she began to feel the heat of his touch against her panties, making her want to continue.
“Samuel, I…” she began as his finger left her body and he lowered her leg back down to the floor.
“Don’t say a word,” he growled then looked up into her violet eyes. “I swear to God, if you say a single word, I’ll pull you into the nearest closet and finish what we started.” He drew a deep breath as his eyes lingered on her lips. “Go upstairs and get dressed. I’ll be in the parlor when you’re ready to leave.”
Samuel kissed her once more, hard but brief, then turned around. He bent down and picked up the envelope he had dropped unknowingly at some point during their encounter, then moved quickly down the hallway toward the flight of stairs.
Johanna couldn’t move, she could hardly breathe. All she wanted was to be back in that man’s strong embrace. She closed her eyes, feeling the touch of his lips against her, the firm grip on her breast, his long finger inside her, and his hard…it pressed against her with such intimacy that she could feel the heat through their combined clothes.
“Johanna, there you are,” Alissa said, pulling her niece out of her memory. “Are you feeling well? You look feverish.”
“I’m fine,” she whispered pushing herself away from the wall.
“Then get moving. You’re running out of time and you still have to do your hair and makeup.”
Johanna followed her aunt down the hallway on legs that felt like rubber, to the lift that stood open. She sat down on the bench as the doors closed and they began moving upwards toward the highest level of the palace. Her heart was slowly returning to normal, and she began to get a grip on her senses. She couldn’t believe what had just happened, but worse, she couldn’t believe she didn’t even attempt to stop it. Samuel had controlled her with a simple touch of his lips…oh, but what a touch it was.
She could still taste his kiss, feel his tongue inside her mouth, his finger thrusting inside her tight vagina. It had been…unfamiliar, she thought as the doors slid open and she stood up. It was a feeling she wanted to experience more of, though the logical part of her brain had woken, and she could hear the reasoning why she could never allow it to happen again.
The man was dangerous to her senses. The primal need to experience what he threatened her with, was something she could not afford to allow herself to feel. She had a duty to Westerly, to her people and she had never turned her back on any form of responsibility before, and she wasn’t going to start now. She was going to concentrate on cleaning up the chaos Reginald left her and put the island back in order. She had no time for emotion, or passion. And now she had another item on her agenda. She was going to complete the research her cousin had started and find out what really happened to her parents.
The coronation was an elaborate affair with all the pomp and circumstance the island could produce. The traditional open top royal carriage took Johanna, Alissa, Martin, Samuel and Patrick to the chapel, drawn by four white stallions from the Carrington Ranch, and driven by Roscoe. It had been decorated in flowers and ribbons, while crowds of well-wishers shouted and called out to her as they passed.
By the insistence of Alissa, Johanna waved to the people, forcing a smile across her sore lips. She avoided looking at Samuel, but she could feel his eyes on her nearly the entire trip. The heat of them seemed to make her heart pound between her ears so loudly, she barely noticed the noise of the crowd.
The carriage pulled up to the front steps of the old brick chapel and stopped. It didn’t look much different from a few days ago when she was here to bury her cousin. Four steps led to the church, and the sides of all four were decorated with baskets and vases of assorted flowers while purple ribbons flew from the branches of the trees, and confetti was thrown from the sidelines.
Samuel was the first to exit the carriage, followed by Patrick, Alissa and Martin. As Johanna stepped foot onto a red carpet that had been set in place, the crowd began to scream and shout louder than before. She glanced down to the carpet as Alissa and Martin stepped aside. It was long and plush, offering a comfortable alternative to walking on cement. It went up the four steps and disappeared through the open doors.
Next to the carpet were two hundred guards lined up on either side. They wore the traditional white tunic and black pants, white hat with a purple feather, like that Samuel and Patrick wore. Their feet were tucked beneath highly polished black knee-high boots, and each had a sword sheathed to their side. As Johanna stepped onto the carpet, a man called out and the guards raised their swords encompassing the princess and her entourage beneath a canopy of steel.
Johanna led the precession up the red carpet, moving steadily forward, praying she wouldn’t trip over the long gown she was forced to wear. The soft violet colored satin hugged her torso perfectly, revealing her firm young breasts. The collar stood up at the back of her neck and scooped, revealing a deep cleavage. The sleeves were long and formfitting, though not as tight as she had presumed it would be when she first saw it hanging outside her wardrobe. The skirt was cut straight down to her knees then flared out to the floor just enough to add a touch of elegance. At the hem of the gown, around the neck and arms was a thick dark purple rope edging that added just a splash of color to the satin.
The gown was complete with a ten-foot removable train that would be attached inside the chapel and would follow her up the aisle like a lost puppy. On her head sat an elaborate diamond and gold crown that all princesses had worn to their coronations, or to those of their husbands, though the last princess to be crowned queen was Angelique, nearly four hundred years ago. Around her slender neck, she wore the diamond and amethyst necklace and matching earrings that once belonged to Angelique the first. Her feet were snuggly hidden inside a pair of violet satin low heels, and her hair hung loosely down her back in large ringlets.
As if wearing a dress and heels wasn’t bad enough, she was forced to wear cosmetics. Her eyes had been decorated with three very pale colors of pink and violet, her long lashes coated in black mascara and her cheeks dusted with a soft coral color. Across her lips, she wore just a hint of color, completed with a layer of shiny gloss.
Little did she know, the makeup brought out her natural beauty and added to Samuel’s discomfort. He had been trying his hardest to remain a safe distance from her since their encounter earlier that morning, in the hallway outside her office. He was vividly aware that he had ripped through the tight layer of flesh that prevented intruders into her body and felt like a thief for taking it without her permission.
Johanna carefully walked up the steps to the front of the church, then paused and turned to wave at the crowd again. She glanced up to see a large screen, at least twice the size of a normal movie house screen hanging from the roof of Westerly Hall next door. On it was displayed her image as she waved to the crowd of loyal citizens. If she wasn’t already feeling awkward and uncertain of the role she would play, she was now.
Turning back to the doorway, Johanna stepped into the chapel between Alissa and Martin, while Patrick and Samuel followed close. The red carpet had been laid out to cover the long aisle of the chapel and the sound of a children’s choir began to sing a religious song that Johanna didn’t really pay much attention to. Her nerves were dancing, her pulse was racing, and she felt as if she was going to melt into a puddle of humility before she could even take her vows.
The chapel’s pews were filled with dignitaries and official visitors from all over the world, along with the Regional Leaders and their families, and the most prominent people of Westerly. Johanna looked through the slight opening of the double doors that led to the chapel, seeing the priest standing on a platform at the far end. He was dressed in full, formal robes of white and purple, matching the colors of the royal guard.
Two young women stepped out of the side door, carrying between them the long red and white fur robe, as Janessa attached the long satin train to Johanna’s gown. The girls very gently laid the garment around the shoulders of their soon-to-be queen, then moved to the back of her gown, helping to smooth out the train. The robes were much heavier than Johanna had imagined, but it wasn’t more than she could handle. It seemed symbolic for the role she would spend the rest of her life playing. On her shoulders lay the futures and safety of the entire country, heavy and long like the robe. Fortunately, she wouldn’t be wearing the cloak for long, and she was strong enough to endure the challenges of the future.
Johanna glanced to Alissa and Martin with a mixed expression of anxiety and apprehension. Martin smiled as he leaned into her, kissing her cheek tenderly and whispering how proud he was of her, in her ear. Alissa looked like she was going to cry as she gave her niece a tight hug and kiss on the cheek, then disappeared through the side door where they entered and took their place in the front pew. Patrick and Samuel stood beside Johanna as the two young women took hold of the hem of the robe, lifting it off the ground. The doors opened, and the choir immediately began to sing Westerly’s national anthem, signaling Johanna it was time for her to make her grand appearance. She glanced once to Samuel who winked back, then drew a deep breath and began to walk forward.
As she began up the aisle toward the throne, the congregation rose and bowed when she passed the pews. There were two churches on Westerly, the Catholic and the Presbyterian, both of whom were going to conduct the service. She methodically approached the platform where Father Raymond and Pastor Early stood on either side of an ornately carved throne of deep black wood and padded purple upholstery. It was the same throne used since Black Jack found it waiting for the Spaniard who ordered the palace built. It had been brought to the island as a symbol of the man’s strength over six hundred years ago when he first stepped foot on the island, bringing with him a number of slaves. It was Black Jack who saved the island, and it was Black Jack who put the throne into use.
The priest and the pastor bowed as she stepped up the three stairs toward them, greeting her with prayer books in their hands. Slowly, she turned to look at the spectators, feeling the anxiety mount inside her stomach. The girls silently arranged the robe’s length, so she wouldn’t trip on it, or so the priest and pastor wouldn’t step on it, then moved off to the side to wait for the service to end.
As she sat on the throne, the music ended, and a hush fell over the island. She glanced to Samuel who had moved to the side of the stage, while Patrick took up vigilance at the other side. They stood at attention, watching and guarding their queen as she took her vows. There were Royal Guardsmen at the entrance of the church with more outside to help keep order, but even with the knowledge of so many men protecting her, she was still fighting to control her nerves.
The ceremony began with the priest uttering his prayers while passing a golden Thurible around the throne and above Johanna’s head. The smell of frankincense filled the room while Father Raymond’s prayers were sung and chanted. Johanna sat rigid in her seat, her hands folded in her lap and her head held high. She starred out onto the congregation who watched her, many wiping their eyes, others smiling proudly.
When the priest finally ended his prayers, Pastor Early stepped forward and began the whole ritual over again. The seconds ticked by slowly and Johanna felt like the china doll her grandfather bought her when she was four. She had taken it to her room and placed it on a shelf, safe and protected so she could be stared at and not touched. She never imagined what it must be like to be placed on a shelf until this very moment. With her satin gown and fur robe, she was about as much of a spectacle as her doll had been.
At last the prayers were finished and an elderly Bishop stepped forward carrying a satin pillow. On it was a golden sword with an embossed hilt of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. Johanna glanced briefly to the sword, recognizing it from the paintings hanging in the foyer of the palace. Every ruler since Black Jack had been painted holding the sword, a symbol of the loyalty they promised to the island. It was a privilege just to touch the golden saber, but she would carry it with her during every formal occasion from now until the end of her days. The bishop handed the pillow and sword to Father Raymond as he prepared for his portion of the ceremony.
The next person to approach the throne was a young altar boy with very short, bright red hair and round glasses. He looked pale with fear, making his freckles seem more like orange confetti on a cupcake. He carried a pillow similar to the one the sword was lying across. This one held a beautiful crown, decorated in the same elegant design as the sword, with spines embossed in emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. It was the king’s crown rather than the smaller queen’s, and for a moment Johanna frowned. She hadn’t considered wearing a crown, much less the large heavy one pictured on the heads of the kings standing in her foyer. Then she considered her situation. She wasn’t a king, but a queen, though there had never been a crowned queen since Angelique II.
Angelique took the throne shortly after Edward’s death, assuming the role of ruler. Ian didn’t become king until ten years after they were married. Now, it was Johanna’s turn. Since there had never been a woman to assume the responsibility of the island before, or after, Angelique, it was only natural that the ruler’s crown would be placed on Johanna’s head. For some odd reason, however, it made her feel even more self-conscious. It was one thing to wear male’s clothing to a funeral, it was another to wear his crown.
Another prayer was offered, this one from the bishop who took the Bible from Pastor Early, asking God to protect the queen and guide her with wisdom and compassion. He then turned and took the sword off the pillow, holding it across his open palms.
The noise on the street beyond the church seemed to vanish in time, leaving only the sound of birds in the trees outside the open windows to break the silence as the Bishop stepped in front of Johanna. He passed the sword to her, laying it on her open palms just as he carried it. She was amazed at how beautiful and well balanced it was. She wondered if fighting with it would be as easy as the swords she normally practiced with, and then she thought of Black Jack brandishing the sword in battle.
The truth was, the sword had been forged from solid gold after Black Jack assumed the throne. He had ordered the gold he brought to the island to be melted and shaped in the sword she now held. It was his decision that every ruler hold it while promising their oath to the island and the people, just as she did now. The sword had never seen a battle. It was too weak to be used as a weapon, so it was nothing more than a very expensive symbol of authority and power. But it was beautiful, and she was still very tempted to swing it through the air just to see how it handled.
Pulling herself out of her daydream, Johanna stood from the throne as the Bishop backed up to stand at the edge of the stage. She cautiously moved forward two steps, holding the sword in front of her as the Bishop began asking her a series of questions.
“Will you swear to protect and defend the Island of Westerly to the best of your ability?” he asked.
“I will,” Johanna answered in a firm, strong voice.
“Will you guide and serve the citizens of Westerly as their ruler and queen, and promise to uphold the laws and rules set forth by Jonathan Abbott, upon the formation of this country?”
“I will,” she answered again.
“And will you act as the voice for Westerly, the heart of Westerly, and the conscious of Westerly to those whom you will serve, as you forge forward with wisdom, strength, and compassion?”
Father Raymond stepped forward and removed Johanna’s smaller crown, handing it off to Pastor Early, who then sat it on the satin pillow another young man carried. This boy was slightly older than the first, tall and thin with dark brown hair and brown eyes. The bishop accepted the crown from the young altar boy, lifting it in front of Johanna, and began reciting still another prayer, this one in what sounded like Hebrew. Once he had finished, he carefully sat the bejeweled crown on her head.
Johanna’s heart was pounding so hard between her ears she thought she’d knock the crown off with the beating in her temples. It was much lighter than it looked, though still quite heavy. She could feel the fur lining around the rim as it sat on her forehead, certain it was there for comfort and the security to hold it on the head, rather than decoration.
“By the power of God and the laws of the Island of Westerly, I crown thee, Johanna Maria Juliet Catherine Abbott-Worthington, Queen of Westerly, Servant of The People, and Guardian of the Laws,” the man announced, as those in the church stood and bowed to the queen for the first time.
The sound of cheers echoed through the building as shouts of jubilation and excitement filtered in through the open windows. The voices from the streets outside, joined those in the church as they all began to chant;
“Long live the queen…long live Johanna.”
Johanna mingled among the guests with a smile she hoped didn’t look as phony as she felt it did. The day had drug on longer than she thought it would, with a lunch that followed the coronation, press interviews, and a procession line similar to what she had gone through when she first arrived on Westerly. She met dignitaries from England, America, France, Italy, and more countries than she could count. Each one smiled and offered her congratulations and words of encouragement as they bowed or curtsied.
The sun had set over an hour ago, and the coronation ball was still in full swing. Johanna’s feet ached inside the low-heeled shoes, her back felt as if she had a rod running down her spine, and her head swam with all the names of people she had met. She knew the two hundred plus dignitaries and guests who came to Westerly for the day’s events were staying at the palace until Sunday, but as long as she had her privacy, she could really care less.
Johanna managed a few brief moments for Janessa to remove the train from her gown, giving her the ability to walk without tripping. She felt slightly less uncomfortable, though she still fought the tight heels restraining her feet, and the heavy crown of diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds she was forced to wear. It was her day crown, as Janessa termed it, though she doubted highly if she would want to ever wear it again - day or night.
Samuel had changed out of his uniform and into a tuxedo shortly after they arrived safely back at the palace. Patrick, too, had changed outfits since his family was the leaders from Timber Pines, and he was there to support his family. His father, Lord Harry Reading, was a short stalky man with a bald head. He had been one of the Elders released from service, but unlike Sorensen, he was thankful to return to his normal routine.
Harry’s wife, Margaret, hung on her husband’s arm like a wristwatch. She was taller than Harry and surprisingly younger with dyed red hair that was piled on top of her head in a mass of curls. She was very friendly, though overly made up with false eyelashes, thick black eyeliner, pencil-thin brows, and bright red lips. She smiled every time she saw Johanna, and her giggle could be heard from wherever she was in the room. Her daughter, Susan, looked a lot like her mother with short curly red hair and more makeup than Johanna would assume a girl of thirteen would wear. Both seemed comfortable with the cream of the social settings, and Susan spent a considerable amount of time flirting with every young man she saw - including Samuel.
Samuel watched from across the room as Johanna casually and calmly made her way around the different groups who were gathered at tables, or just standing about talking. He was amazed at how easily she handled herself and fought the urge to go to her and hold her in his arms, but he was stopped by two warm arms as they slipped in his.
“Hello,” a young blonde said batting her fake eyelashes at him. “I’m Sarah Miller and this is my sister Angela. We’re Johanna’s best friends.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet both of you,” he said with a smile, hoping he didn’t sound as aggravated by their interruption of his thoughts as he felt.
“We saw you talking to Johanna earlier,” Angela said glancing to the woman in question as she moved onto the dance floor with their brother. “You’re her bodyguard, aren’t you?”
“I’m the Captain of her guard, yes,” he answered.
“It must be a fascinating job,” Sarah commented. “Is it very dangerous?”
“Since the queen has only been on Westerly for a short time, it’s difficult to say. As of yet, there has been no danger.”
“But you know how to protect her, right?” Sarah asked. “You seem so strong and brave. I’m sure it would be quite easy for you to save her if you needed to.”
“My primary job is to protect the queen, anyway I have to.”
“Does that mean you’d take a bullet for her?” Angela asked with wide eyes, though Samuel felt the expression was less curious as it was flirtatious.
“Citizens are not allowed to carry guns on Westerly,” he clarified. “But yes, if it came down to it, I would be willing to take a bullet for her.”
“You must be very brave,” Sarah cooed as her hand traveled up his chest. “I feel safer just standing next to you.”
“I can assure you both, you are in no danger here. My guards are outside to secure the palace, as well as inside to protect the queen.”
Samuel smiled as politely as he could, moving his arms away from them and placing his hands firmly on the small of their backs.
“It was a pleasure to meet both of you, but I have to check on my guards. If you’ll excuse me.”
Samuel walked away at a casual pace, moving deliberately to the guards standing beside the main entrance. He spent a few moments talking to them about the evening, the coronation, and the guests then glanced to the twins. He smiled to himself watching them flirt with his younger brother Kevin. At least they had made a conquest that was more suiting to their age and enthusiasm. He excused himself from his guards and quietly made his way to the table where his parents were sitting with Alissa and Martin. He accepted the drink the waiter brought him and sat down.
“There you are,” his mother said with a wide smile. “We were just talking about how well the guard performed today.”
“They have been practicing for days to make certain everything went off without a hitch,” Samuel said as he took a drink of his champagne. “They were all very proud to take part in the ceremony.”
“Well, they looked great,” Alissa told him.
“Johanna was telling us about her trip next week,” Martin began. “She said she’s taking a squadron of guards. Do you think there will be trouble?”
“Not really,” Samuel assured him. “Father sent some of his workers down to survey the Region yesterday. There are a lot of problems that need to be handled, but for the most part, I think the people will be quite pleased their new queen is taking the time to go personally.”
“It’s more than Reginald would have done,” Franny said in a disgruntled tone.
“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” Walter said gently patting his wife’s hand. “The filter between her brain and her mouth malfunctions with alcohol.”
“That’s quite alright,” Alissa said with an amused smile. “From everything we’ve learned since his death, we would have to agree with her. Reginald left quite a lot behind for Johanna to straighten out.”
“She’s done a brilliant job so far,” Walter commented. “The town is still raving about the tax reduction, and parents are finally stepping up to take responsibility for their children’s actions. Kevin was put out though. He doesn’t care much for the strict curfew.”
“He’ll get used to it, and Johanna said it wasn’t permanent,” Alissa said in defense of her niece.
“And she has plans of lowering taxes even further,” Martin added. “It’s just a matter of time, but Johanna is a very intelligent young woman. If there’s a way to change the country’s deficit, she’ll find it.”
“You sound very proud of your niece,” Walter commented with a smile as he glanced to his wife who was taking another drink from the waiter.
“We are,” Alissa answered with a genuine smile. “She’s a very unique woman, and I think Westerly is extremely lucky to have her.”
“Nora has been talking nonstop about her,” Franny said with a wide smile. “You’d think she was some kind of god the way she acts.”
“She’s just a young girl with an idol,” Walter assured them. “Out of all the people in this world, for her to worship, I’m quite happy she found Johanna.”
“So am I,” Samuel said softly.
“Johanna told us you’re planning on going to Northern Shores with her and your father,” Alissa said with a suspicious glint in her blue eyes.
“I am,” he answered. “She will need protection, and I don’t feel comfortable putting my men on an assignment I’m not willing to take myself.”
“Is that all she is? An assignment?”
Samuel was quiet for several long moments as he looked out to the dance floor where the woman they’d been discussing was dancing quite close to a young man with dark hair. He wasn’t sure exactly what she was to him but after that kiss this morning…his thoughts trailed off as he remembered how it felt to have her lips against his. The way she seemed to mold perfectly to him, and the touch of her moist body on his fingers...
“Samuel takes his position very seriously,” Walter commented for his son when he didn’t answer.
“Nora is a wealth of information,” Franny said. “Some of the stuff she’s told us sounds a little…farfetched.”
“What has she told you?” Martin asked with a frown.
“A lot of stuff she’s found on the internet mainly or heard on television reports. She told us, she heard that Johanna had been burned at the stake for being a witch.”
Franny ended her comment with a soft snorting laugh as she tipped her drink to her lips.
“She was,” Martin answered.
“What?” Franny asked nearly choking on her champagne.
“You’re not serious?” Walter added with a frown.
“Quite serious,” Alissa said. “It was the summer after she turned thirteen. Martin’s kids had come to spend the summer with us, but because it was the middle of June, we couldn’t stay and work in Egypt. Digging in the desert under the blazing sun is bad enough, but you add the summer heat to it and it’s practically unbearable. Paying for guides and men to help dig is quite expensive during the hotter months.”
Alissa paused for a moment as she took a drink glancing to Martin who looked a bit embarrassed.
“I became friends with a tribe of Aborigines in Australia, my first year out of university,” she continued. “We have always tried to visit them at least once a year, especially during the really hot months. We spend a few weeks each summer in Australia surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, that sort of thing. Johanna’s grandfather had a home there, so after he passed away, she decided to keep it. It’s a lovely place on the seaside. Nothing like this, but it holds very fond memories for Johanna.”
“Usually, we just go to the seaside and travel up the coast to their village before leaving the country, but this particular trip, we decided to go straight across the backlands to where the tribe lives,” Martin picked up, continuing the story. “We hired a team of guides to get us there safely. With all the wild animals and the miles of flat lands, we felt it was best if we had someone to help us out in case we got into trouble. We were about halfway to the village when we came across a band of nomads.”
“Our guides told us that this particular tribe was very good at hiding and hunting, so they travel easily around the outback, almost undetected,” Alissa added.
“When they find a girl, who is of the age of maturation, or a young woman without male protection,” Martin picked up, “they will stalk her until she’s alone then steal her. Because they are very good at hiding their tracks, and they never stay in one place for long, it’s difficult to find them. They’re usually gone by the time the girl is missed by her family, and if she is ever found again, she’s too humiliated to return to her own tribe. She’s immediately made a bride to one of the tribal men. Because she’s young and on the brink of becoming a woman, she’s kept hidden until she’s pregnant.”
“How horrible,” Franny said with a frown.
“It’s how they live,” Martin told her. “It’s the only way of life they know.”
“Johanna and the twins were in that age range,” Alissa continued. “We ordered them to stay in the jeep and be very quiet, then pulled the canvas shades down over the windows. Our caravan was stopped, and we attempted to make a deal with the tribal leaders to cross their path.”
“These nomads are very superstitious and consider it a bad omen if you try to pass through them,” Martin explained.
“Sarah and Angela have always been troublemakers,” Alissa continued. “They routinely act without thinking, and they chose to make this one of those times. Johanna hates snakes and spiders, but Sarah loves them, and she knows a great deal about them. She thought it would be funny to set a snake on Johanna’s lap, just to see what she’d do.”
“It was a harmless reptile, and it was a baby, so nothing would have happened to her,” Samuel interjected, almost as if making an excuse for his daughters.
“That’s not the point,” Alissa scolded the man who gave her a look as if this conversation was an old argument between the two. “Johanna was terrified of it.”
“What did she do?” Samuel asked with a curious grin, eager to hear the outcome of the story.
“She did what anyone who hates things that creep, and crawl do,” Martin said with a chuckle. “She screamed and fell out of the back of the jeep.”
The small group laughed as they imagined the scene, then glanced to Johanna who was still on the dancefloor, oblivious that she was being talked about.
“I’d love to have seen that,” Samuel said as he eyed the woman.
“It’s funny now,” Alissa said with a grin, “but it was horrible at the time, and nearly caused all of our deaths.”
“Oh dear,” Franny said with a frown. “What happened?”
“Whenever Johanna gets angry, she speaks in Italian,” Alissa said. “She’s done it since she first learned to speak. In fact, her first words were piu per favore, which means more please in Italian. I don’t know if it’s because her mother spoke Italian to her as a baby, or if it’s some kind of weird genetic trait, but there she was, angrily shouting in words these nomads had never heard.”
“And in case you haven’t noticed it,” Martin interrupted as he smiled softly to the woman next to him, gently slipping his hand into her hair, “Johanna and Alissa don’t exactly look alike. Where Alissa has blonde hair with blue eyes, Johanna has dark hair and her mother’s dark Italian/Spanish coloring. With her grandfather’s purple eyes, she looked fearsome, especially as she stood shouting at us in Italian.”
“It was a sight,” Alissa chuckled. “There she was, screaming like a bloody banshee. Angry, red-faced and ready to kill Sarah.”
The small group laughed again as the image of Johanna as a young girl came into their minds.
“Since this tribe is very superstitious, they thought she was a witch or a demon,” Alissa continued when they stopped laughing. “They were convinced she had come to curse their tribe. It took every gun our guides had to make our escape. When we reached the village, we set up camp and Martin had it out with the twins.”
“I hope he blistered their asses,” Samuel said as he imagined what it must have been like for his young queen.
“Martin believes physical reprimanding is a form of corporal punishment,” Alissa told them, watching the man next to her shrug his shoulders in a nonchalant manner. “All he did was bawl them out. I was so angry I could have strangled the little bitch. Johanna just refused to speak with either girl. She went into her tent to get ready for bed. A little while later, we heard her scream and went running.”
“Johanna has been taught a variety of different martial arts since she first came to stay with us,” Martin continued picking up the story again. “She was able to protect herself - to a point. The nomads managed to get her out of camp before anyone knew what was happening. We found four of them unconscious on the ground where she had been abducted, but there was no sign of Johanna. She was simply gone. Fortunately, the tribe we were visiting are excellent trackers, and with the help of our guides, we were able to find her in a very short time, but not before they had stripped her naked and tied her to a dead tree trunk.”
“Good God,” Walter said with a concerned frown.
“To say the least,” Alissa added with an angry look on her face. “They made a bonfire around her feet and lit it. We managed to scare them off and get her back to camp, but she had serious burns on her feet and legs.”
“She developed a high fever by the next morning,” Martin explained. “We sent for a doctor who had a small clinic in a nearby village, but by the time he got to us, she had slipped into a coma. He felt it was best to leave her where she was and came to see her every day. We thought she was going to die.”
“If it hadn’t been for the natural healing techniques of the tribe…” Alissa’s voice trailed off as Martin slipped an arm around her shoulders. She didn’t have to finish the sentence for them to know what she meant.
“The tribal women made a concoction of herbs and mud and wrapped her legs in banana leaves,” Martin said. “They took around the clock vigilance, unwrapping her legs and exercising them, every hour the entire time she was unconscious. It’s because of them, she’s able to walk.”
“She never cried out or screamed,” Alissa said looking at the table as if seeing the event played out in front of her.
“Timbuku, the Chief of the tribe we were staying with, told us, the Nomads were trying to drive the demons from her before she died,” Martin continued. “If she had cried out, then they would know they had freed her soul. Johanna would rather die than give them the satisfaction of hearing her scream.”
“She’s always been that way, though,” Alissa added. “She’ll never cry, no matter what happens to her, and she doesn’t believe in emotions, especially love.”
“Why?” Franny asked wiping a tear from her bloodshot eyes.
“Johanna swore, after my mother died, she would never allow anyone to love her again,” Alissa assured them, looking toward Samuel as she spoke, but he was watching the woman in question. “She has always believed that she’s cursed, that anyone who loves her will die.”
“Why would she think something like that?” Samuel asked, turning to look at the woman across from him.
“Johanna has suffered a great deal of loss in her young life,” Alissa continued in a sad voice. “Everyone she relied on as a child died before she had a chance to mature and understand what life and death was all about. Father always told her these romantic stories about her parents and how much they loved her. He never wanted her to forget that her parents loved her with all their hearts. She absolutely loved Father. He was her idol. When she lost him, she felt confused and angry and needed someone to explain things to her, but my mother wasn’t exactly a very caring woman. Mother lost my younger brother when he was little more than a boy, and she always blamed Edward for his death. It was the family curse that killed him - if you believe in that - but Mother was heartbroken nevertheless. When Edward and Juliet’s plane went missing, she again blamed the curse. I don’t think she knew how to open her heart after Charlie’s death.”
“Charles was very doting with Johanna,” Martin said a few moments later as Alissa sipped her champagne. “When he died, her world ended, and then Catherine died. On her deathbed, she told Johanna that she loved her. In the brain of a small five-year-old child, she instantly internalized her emotions and blamed herself for all of it. She thinks that anyone who comes close enough to love her, dies. She has spent the past fifteen years, keeping everyone at arm’s length for their own protection. If anyone even mentions the word love to her, she turns into a beast and pushes them as far away as she can.”
“She’d rather make a person hate her, then risk causing their deaths,” Alissa continued. “That’s why she’s stern and seems so uncaring. Her work has always been very important to her. In the cover of books, people don’t die.”
Samuel turned back to watch the woman who was laughing with the man whose arms she was in. That story was what he needed to understand the beautiful minx. It was the information he needed to deal with her and perhaps have a future with her.