For the first time in his life, he thought he might faint.
Given half a chance he could just pass out right there on the floor. All these people would have to step over him to get out of the building. He really thought he might do it. He could almost sense the black void opening up, ready to swallow him whole. All he had to do was relinquish control to the forces of gravity. That's all – just let go.
Then she touched his arm.
She was making an introduction. He heard her speak but couldn't fathom the words. But when she turned to him, and touched his arm, his focus came rushing back. She looked in his eyes. And now he heard the words.
"…and this is my husband, Joseph."
He couldn't pass out. What if he woke up and found that it had all been a dream?
She didn't think she was going to make it. Her mouth kept moving and the words tumbled out, but she really had no idea what she was saying. Receiving lines were always treacherous places, verbal minefields. God only knew how many people she was in the process of permanently offending. Did she get anyone's name right? Were people smiling because they were happy or because she was making a terrible fool of herself?
She felt completely out of control. Her head was spinning. The faces were running together. Who is that with Lord Donovan? It must be his wife, but what is her name? It's not like she hadn't met the woman a hundred times before now. Oh, God, they're next. What will I say?
Even as the thought passed through her mind, her mouth opened and the words of greeting poured smoothly out. She turned to introduce them to Joseph. For some reason she touched his arm and their eyes locked. His gaze was so intense, so powerful. She felt herself drawing on his strength to regain her control.
She couldn't afford to lose it now. What if things went horribly wrong and this dream could never be true?
Finally the line was finished. They both took a deep breath but before they could even speak, Charlotte and the footmen were rushing them out of the cathedral into the horse drawn carriage. Huge crowds lined the streets of Pyrus, expecting a glimpse of their Princess and her new Prince. The Queen and her Consort would have to suffice. Mia joined the two for the carriage ride. Mia was so happy and excited that her words bubbled and gushed out of her mouth.
Neither Joseph nor Clarisse really paid any attention to what she was saying. They looked out their respective sides of the carriage and waved to the cheering throngs. He knew he was behaving mechanically – like an automaton. As they progressed through the streets, his arm began to ache. Finally he shook his head, as if to clear it, and dropped his arm. He turned in the seat to face her. Still she smiled and waved towards the crowds.
Finally she felt his gaze and turned to him. She smiled almost shyly at him.
"You realize you haven't spoken a single word to me since you said 'I do'," she told him.
He let the silence between them drag out for a moment before he spoke. "You kissed me."
"Well, yes." She was puzzled by this remark. "Honestly, Joseph, it's not like it was the first time!"
"In public Clarisse. In front of a church full of people. Hundreds of people were watching." He was smiling broadly at her now. "I really didn't think you would do it."
She laughed a little at that. Good God, he loved the sound of her laugh. He reached out and captured her face in both of his hands and brought his lips down to hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck, ignoring everything but his kiss. All around them the crowd exploded into cheers. Mia cheered loudest of all.
As soon as the carriage arrived at the palace, they were whisked into the dining hall for the wedding banquet. The seating arrangements had been altered, allowing Joseph and Clarisse to sit next to each other, she at the head, and he on her right. The hall was filled with people and conversation buzzed all around them. They found themselves captured by small talk with guests, rather than being able to communicate with each other. Clarisse ate almost nothing. Joseph managed to at least push the food around on his plate, but really ate little more than she.
Following the meal, they posed for official photographs in the throne room. Clarisse was finding it more and more difficult to smile. The banquet had gone on forever, it seemed. She felt as if the walls were closing in on her. She and Joseph had barely been able to speak two sentences to each other. It was maddening to be so close, to have so much to say to each other and yet not be able to speak. Or to touch.
Finally, the photographer finished and started to pack away the equipment. Clarisse rose from her seat on the throne. She reached for Joseph's arm, while at the same time looking around the room for Charlotte.
"Have you seen Charlotte?" she asked without looking at him. "I need to tell her –"
Joseph cut her off by pulling her by the arm. He took her firmly in his grasp and marched her quickly out of the throne room, into a hallway, and through the first open door he could find. He didn't speak.
"Joseph! What are you doing?" she didn't know whether to be annoyed or excited. They were in a small office. Joseph locked the door behind them.
"I am taking you away from all this!" He swept her into his arms as he spoke. She started to reply, but he interrupted her with a crushing kiss. They had kissed before, many times, but never like this. He held nothing back. He poured all his hidden longing, all his deep-seated passion into this one act. At first she tried to meet the kiss with a delicacy of her own. He was having none of it. He drank and drank from her lips, sapping her body of strength as she succumbed. Her legs lost the ability to hold her and she melted into his arms. Just when she felt she could give him nothing more of herself, he broke the kiss, pulling back to hold her at arms length.
He grinned devilishly at her. "Finally!" he said.
Clarisse blinked at him, unable to form a coherent thought. Her only answer was a whispered "oh… my god…"
"You've made me very happy, Clarisse." He still held her by the shoulders.
"I can see that," she gasped. She couldn't quite catch her breath and felt certain that her knees were going to buckle under her at any moment. "Can we sit down?"
The only chairs in the room were the desk chair and two arm chairs. Joseph motioned towards them. "Take your pick." He waited for her to be seated before pulling his chair in front of hers. They sat knee to knee. She took his hands in hers.
"Joseph, can you ever forgive me for springing this on you so unexpectedly?"
""Forgive you for making me happier than I ever thought possible? That should be easy."
"Yes, but surely you would have liked to have your family here for the ceremony," she said.
"I'm sure they will forgive you. Well, maybe not Maria, but the rest of them will!"
Clarisse smiled. "I've heard you mention Maria before. Why haven't I ever met her?"
"She's always been too busy with school, so I visit her on my trips home to Spain."
"She's still busy with school? How many degrees must she have by now?"
Joseph laughed. "She's just finishing medical school and starting her residency. She's only 25, you know."
"Twenty-five?" Clarisse frowned as she did the math.
"She's my half-sister. My father remarried after my mother's death. And we Romeros are a virile group. Old age doesn't stop us!"
Clarisse raised an eyebrow at him. "That is good news. Good news indeed."
She could almost see the blush creeping up above his starched white collar. She leaned forward and kissed him quickly.
"Please tell me we have finished all the official duties of the day," he said as she sat back in her chair.
She smoothed her skirt. "Unfortunately, no. I don't have any idea what we are supposed to be doing now. I was going to ask Charlotte before I was so pleasantly interrupted."
He stood and smiled down at her. "You should get used to that."
"I plan to." She stood as well. "I suppose we should go back out there. Someone is sure to be hunting for one or the other of us."
Joseph nodded and opened the door a bit. He could see Shades standing a discrete distance away, making sure they remained undisturbed. Joseph opened the door wider and motioned for Clarisse to precede him. As they left the office and reentered the throne room, Shades smiled broadly at them both. "Congratulations, Joe," he said softly after the Queen had passed him.
"Thank you, Shades. Congratulations to you as well. You are going to make an excellent Head of Security." They shook hands. Joseph continued the quiet conversation. "What has been done with Mabry?"
Shades stiffened slightly. "The guards weren't sure if he was to be placed in custody or just tossed out of the cathedral. While they were trying to sort it out, he just walked away. I have contacted his housekeeper. She hasn't seen him."
"So she says," Joe said darkly.
"I believe her. She doesn't seem to like her employer much."
"I can certainly understand that." Joe took a deep breath. "I know you will stay on top of this and inform me of any developments."
Shades nodded and they followed the Queen into the throne room.
Clarisse found Charlotte and ascertained that there was a press conference scheduled for later in the afternoon, followed by the official state dinner. The banquet had been a large, joyous gathering of anybody who was anyone in Genovia. The state dinner would include a few visiting dignitaries and most of the longer serving members of parliament. It was a much more formal affair. Clarisse sighed at the thought of a long evening of dull conversation.
Joseph rejoined her following his conversation with Shades. Charlotte explained that there was almost an hour and a half of empty time before the press conference.
"I have to change – I can't wear this to a press conference," Clarisse said. "And what about you, Joseph?"
Joseph noticed that Charlotte had discretely disengaged herself from the couple and moved to the other side of the room after giving them the news that they had a few precious minutes of 'free time'.
"I suppose I should make some phone calls," he replied to Clarisse. "Maria will certainly never forgive me if I don't tell her the news right away."
Clarisse smiled. "Give her my love and please ask her to come and visit as soon as she can. Joseph, why don't you make your calls from my suite? We can, um, spend some time together before I have to get ready for the press conference."
"No, we can't. Not if you have any intention of actually showing up for the press conference."
She laughed. "Fine, then. Why don't you go make your calls and meet me in the garden when you are finished?"
They went their separate ways. Joseph climbed the stairs to his rooms. He briefly considered removing his tuxedo, but he'd just have to put it on again for the dinner later. He loosened his tie instead, then collapsed on the leather sofa. He let out a long, slow breath and closed his eyes. Every nerve in his body seemed to tingle and he couldn't relax. Truthfully, he didn't want to relax. He'd spent plenty of time alone in this room, dreaming of Clarisse. It was time to get out of here and actually be with Clarisse.
He sat up and reached for the phone.
'Damn!' he cursed to himself when her voice mail picked up the call. He waited for her greeting to finish, then said, "Hola, Maria. I just wanted to see how you were. Hope all is well with you. How are you enjoying working in the hospital? Call me when you get a chance. By the way, your sister-in-law wishes you to come and visit us at the palace as soon as possible. Adios, mija!" He was laughing as he hung up the phone.
Joseph glanced at his watch. There was no way Clarisse would have changed and made it to the garden yet. He rummaged in his desk for his address book and found the number for his brother who lived in Barcelona. He knew his brother, normally as quiet and reserved as Joseph himself, would be excited for him. And his brother's wife would want to know all the details. Besides, he could fill her in, then have her call Maria later with the information. Joseph planned to be too busy for phone calls later.
His family was thrilled for him. Joseph enjoyed having someone to listen to him. His sister-in-law had prodded him for years, trying to get him to marry someone, (anyone!) and settle down. He told her all about Clarisse and how happy he was. Finally, he hung up and looked at his watch again. It was a half-hour before the press conference. Clarisse had probably changed and headed to the garden by now. Joseph stepped out onto the balcony. Sure enough, there she was, walking towards the gazebo. Joseph stood for a moment, just watching her move through the flowers.
She reached the gazebo, but stopped to pluck a rose off the bush. She kneeled next to the bush and was hidden from view, briefly. Joseph glance at the gazebo and saw – something. Was there someone else there? He strained to see it again. There!
He recognized the form.
He took off at a run.