EPILOGUE

Joseph breathed deeply. The night air tasted of rain. Storm clouds had been building on he horizon earlier in the evening – before the sun went down. The dark sky was heavy now, occasionally lit by flashes of lightening. He could hear the first stirrings of thunder as the storm moved closer.

The turbulent atmosphere mirrored the state of Joseph's mind. He'd know Clarisse for a long time, now. They'd had their disagreements before, but nothing like this.

He was tired of thinking about it and let his thoughts wander. Eventually his mind began to replay the interview he'd had with King Rupert when he was offered the job as his wife's bodyguard.

"I want to hire you for this job, Mr. Romero. But before you accept, I need to make some things clear to you," Rupert said.

Joseph drew himself up straighter. He'd had this lecture before – My wife/daughter/significant other is off limits to the staff. Protect them, but don't engage them or become a part of their life. And for God's sake, don't sleep with them. Yes, he knew what was coming. It was a little degrading to a man of his experience and background, but it was part of the job.

"She's going to give you trouble," the King continued. Joseph raised an eyebrow surprise. "She is a smart and talented woman with a strong love for her people. As a result she thinks she can handle anything that comes along. Most of the time she can. Occasionally, she can't. Your job will be to stop her when she's considering something that will put her in danger."

Joseph nodded. This was unexpected. Normally he was supposed to come along behind his charge and clean up the mess, not prevent it from being made in the first place.

"You've met the Queen?" Rupert asked. Joseph nodded again. "She is a lovely woman, isn't she?" Joseph smiled politely. 'Here it comes,' he thought. 'The sleep-with-her-and-you're-doomed speech.'

Rupert seemed to read Joseph's expression and grinned at him. "I've never known her to be unfaithful to me. Lord knows she probably has reason enough to be, but she's far too honorable for that. You wouldn't believe the men who have tried to seduce her over the years. Hell, I've all but banned the Italian diplomatic corps from the palace over it." The King laughed quietly, and continued. "Clarisse always keeps her cool with the unwanted attention. When she realizes what is going on she has a talent for maintaining a gracious aloofness while extricating herself from the situation. Honestly, it's a pleasure to watch her at work. However, there are times she doesn't even realize what is happening. She doesn't know it, but she was once almost attacked right here in the palace by a diplomat who'd had way too much to drink. Thankfully the security team did their job and the man was detained before he could get to her.

She can also be dangerously impulsive. She's likely to ask you to stop the car and let her out in the middle of a crowd because she's seen some poor soul she wants to talk to. Or she'll decide to leave an event early and neglect to tell the security that she's sneaking out. Your job will be to anticipate these types of things. Make sure they don't happen, rather than just taking care of things after the fact."

"I much prefer the proactive approach, rather than reactive, Your Majesty," Joseph responded.

The King grinned at him. "You say that now. Just wait until after the first time you try to be proactive with my wife." He laughed out loud then. "You'll be coming to me asking for a combat bonus!" Joseph grinned somewhat nervously.

He told the King he wasn't going to back off just because she was Queen. He wouldn't let her win when he knew she was wrong. That's what it would take to keep her safe. Rupert laughed again and agreed, telling Joseph that he deserved to be paid extra for all the entertainment he would not doubt provide by disagreeing with the Queen. By the end of the interview, Joseph fully expected his new charge to be a spoiled princess in the worst sense of the word. He was already mapping out how to deal with her bristling ego and evidently oversexed personality.

He'd never been more wrong. The King, however, wasn't wrong. The first time they fought, he almost went to the King and asked for the bonus. He'd earned it.

Joseph's thoughts came full circle. This argument was different. He knew he was right. He also knew he could have forced her to comply with his wishes. He just didn't have the heart to do it. This time she was right, too.

She didn't want Mabry brought up on charges. Joseph wanted him burned at the stake, but would settle for a trial before a jury of his peers. Clarisse contended she'd let Mabry take enough away from her. She wouldn't submit to the spectacle of testifying in a criminal case. Why let him cause her that humiliation?

Joseph wanted the man held responsible for what he'd done. He needed to be put away. If not, he would always be a danger.

Clarisse had arranged for Mabry to be committed to a mental institution as soon as he was well enough to leave the hospital. That wasn't enough for Joseph. Yet, he didn't have the stomach to fight her any further. He was tired. He didn't want to waste any more time fighting. She was right – Mabry had taken too much from them already. He wouldn't give him any more.

He took another deep breath and went back inside.

She was reading. The soft white night shirt she was wearing set off her subtle coloring beautifully. Her glasses were perched on her nose and her feet were curled up on the couch beside her. He didn't know what she was reading, but she appeared to be engrossed. She ran a manicured nail absently along her lower lip.

She paid no attention to him as he crossed the room to stand in front of her. He stood too close.

Slowly, she marked her place and closed the book. Still she hadn't looked up at him. She sighed audibly and finally, slowly, she lifted her face to look into his eyes.

He saw the twinkle in her eyes, then. Still she didn't move, didn't speak. Then, ever so slowly she took her reading glasses in one hand and slid them down her nose, so she could look over them at him. She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow at him in silent question. He didn't know if she realized that gesture somehow achieved the same effect as a stripper removing a long satin glove.

His heart beat loudly. He was sure she must be able to hear it. His answer to her silent question was to reach down and gather her into his arms. He lifted her off the couch and held her to his body. Slowly he crossed into the bedroom and laid her down gently on the bed.

She stretched elegantly and reached out to him. He lowered himself into her waiting arms.

Their bodies spoke their apologies and all was well. For now.

THE END