It's almost a new year, so here's a new story.

Thanks in abundance to Mellie D for her extraordinary skills as an editor. She's got a real future in that field!

I wouldn't need a field if I owned these characters or made any money from this. I buy a whole country and install myself as Queen. Then I'd hire a really fine lookin' security chief, someone with a bit of an accent and maybe a tinge of the mysterious... But alas, I own nothing and shan't be quitting my day job anytime soon.

Enjoy!

"I think we are in agreement, gentlemen. The coastal patrols are proving effective and will continue," Clarisse Renaldi said with an air of finality. She smiled warmly at the assembled group of military and police officials. "Captain Roque will compile the reports from the various agencies involved and we will formulate any changes that need to be made to this program as it progresses. If you would continue to funnel your reports to him, we will do our best to streamline this process."

Murmurs of agreement came from all sides of the conference table.

"Very well, then." The Queen stood and gathered her paperwork. "Thank you for your time and attention, gentlemen. I appreciate your hard work and effort in keeping our shores clear of criminal activity."

Those in attendance broke into polite applause as the Queen swept from the room, followed by her assistant, Charlotte and Joseph Romero, the Head of Security.

The assembled law-enforcement and military officers began to gather their belongings and broke into private conversations as they exited the meeting room. Joseph heard someone call his name as he followed the Queen from the conference room.

The voice belonged to Captain George Roque of the Genovian Investigative Force. He was the senior officer in charge of the force's drug interdiction efforts. The coastal patrols were a large part of those efforts.

Roque was a large man with a smile that matched his stature. His brown hair seemed to wage a war against the confines of its short clipped style and his jaunty moustache was equally unruly.

"Glad to see you, Joe," he said as his hand dwarfed Joseph's in a hearty handshake. "I miss having you on my team. Any chance of getting you to come back to work for me?"

Joseph noted that the Queen had stopped to talk with a small group of military officials who'd attended the meeting. He turned his attention to his friend. "Not a chance George. I've got it too good at the palace. The coffee is always fresh here. "

"I can't compete with that," Roque laughed. "We're making good progress on this problem. If we keep at it, these crooks will eventually decide it's just too much trouble to try to get their drugs into Europe through Genvoiva. They'll move on."

"True. I wish they could be eradicated altogether, but I suppose getting them to leave is the best we can hope for at this point" Joseph replied.

Roque continued in a quieter tone. "I'm just glad that Her Majesty is willing to do something about this. Turning a blind eye to the goings on, as was the case with the Palace under King Rupert, certainly didn't help."

Joe nodded simply.

"Listen, Joe," Roque said in the same quiet tone. "Stay in touch with me on this, will you? You know as well as I do that our efforts are hurting the pocketbooks of some of the nobility. They were making some good income from allowing smugglers access to their coastal lands." He paused and cleared his throat. "Some of them might see Her Majesty's program as a threat to their livelihoods, not to mention their recreation, in some cases. I'm not saying that they have any intention of harming the Crown, but they won't go down without a fight. The Queen has taken a strong stand against this drug cartel, one that is long overdue, and I don't want her to be caught unaware in a backlash of all of this. These men, whoever they are, have plenty of money – money that can buy anyone or anything for any purpose."

"You mean the Von Trokens," Joseph said firmly.

"Among others, yes. These people won't think twice of taking out anyone standing in the way of their goals. Regardless of whom it is."

"That thought had occurred to me as well. Trust me, George, there is nothing more important to me than Her Majesty's safety," He glanced over at the Queen before returning his gaze to Roque. His eyes were flint hard as he spoke. "Nothing."

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After seeing the Queen safely ensconced in her office, Joseph descended the staircase to the first floor, accompanying Roque to the entrance. As they neared the bottom of the stairs, a cheerful voice called up to them.

"Joe! Captain Roque! How marvelous to see you both!" The voice belonged to Lord Andre Sadique, a long-time friend of the Queen whose easygoing, friendly manner made him a favorite of the staff as well as the royal family. Sadique was the nephew of one of King Rupert's schoolmates. He had inherited the family estate when his uncle died at a young age without producing heirs of his own. He also had extensive holdings in other countries, including his mother's estate in France. He split his time between the two countries and enjoyed frequent visits to the palace during the time he spent in Genovia.

"Good afternoon, Lord Andre." Joseph greeted him warmly. He paused at the bottom of the staircase while the guards on duty at the door ran scanners over the packages Sadique brought with him.

Andre Sadique was a tall man of indeterminate age whose unruly blonde hair seemed determined to flop down into his eyes, regardless of how it was styled. It gave him a certain boyish charm, which complimented his personality. He ran a hand through his mane as he reached out to shake hands with the men.

"What brings you to the palace, sir?" Joseph asked genially.

"I'm just back from Bavaria and Her Majesty had asked me to keep an eye out for a particular type of lace that she wanted. I've no idea what she wants it for – doilies or something, I'm sure!" Sadique's carefree, happy manner was infectious. Roque and Joseph couldn't help but smile.

"A type of lace?" Roque asked. "There's more than one kind?"

"Evidently, my good man! So, what have I missed? You two look like you've been up to some sort of official business." Sadique grinned broadly. "Or did you just need an excuse to get together to sample Her Majesty's liquor supply? And if it's the latter, surely you have room for a third?"

Roque laughed. "No such luck, sir! We've been working on Her Majesty's drug interdiction program. It's going rather well, it seems. The smuggling traffic through Genovia has been seriously curtailed."

"Ah, yes! I've heard Von Troken complain about this on more than one occasion," Sadique said.

"If he would keep his land closed to the smugglers, we wouldn't have to bother him to such a degree," Roque growled.

"Anything that ruffles the feathers of my Von Troken cousins can't be all bad," Sadique laughed.

Joseph smiled. "You shouldn't let us detain you Lord Andre. I'm sure Her Majesty is looking forward to seeing you."

"I'm sure she is too, Joe," he answered. "But she doesn't know I am coming today. I thought I'd surprise her." He executed a jaunty step-turn and headed for the stairway. "Will I see you again before I leave, Joe?"

"I'm certain of it, sir. Especially if you happen to stop by the kitchen on the way out. I might find my way into some of those liquor supplies you mentioned earlier."

"I'll be there!" Lord Sidique promised and then bounded up the stairs.

Roque shook his head as he contemplated the retreating figure. "That man has entirely too much energy."

"Entirely," Joseph agreed with a smile. "However, he never fails to make Her Majesty laugh."

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Later that afternoon, Joseph made his way to the Queen's office to drop off paperwork on two upcoming retirements from the security division. The retirement forms required the Queen's signature as well as his own. Charlotte was hard at work at her desk as Joe entered and the door to the Queen's private office was closed.

"Hi, Joe!" Charlotte grinned up at him as he tossed the file onto her desk. "Bringing me more work?"

"As always," he replied, taking the seat opposite Charlotte's desk. He indicated the closed door with his hand. "Is she still shut up in there with Lord Sadique?"

"No, he left just a few minutes ago. Now she's trying to catch up on all the work she would've done if he hadn't been here."

"She really likes him, doesn't she?" Joseph asked in what he hoped was a perfectly nonchalant tone of voice.

"Yes, she does, but not like you mean – much to his chagrin," Charlotte couldn't help but smile.

"What way do I mean?" he asked, somewhat surprised.

"She enjoys his company. He's a link to her past in a lot of ways. He was a friend of King Rupert as well as the Princes. He has been a regular at the palace for years, from what I know of him. I think he's someone she can relive old memories with, someone to simply chat with about her family."

"I'm sure you're right. He's always so friendly, it's impossible not to like him," Joseph said.

"He's certainly a charmer," Charlotte agreed. She grinned mischievously. "I think he has the hots for Her Majesty."

Joseph cocked an eyebrow at her and all but snorted. "Isn't he a bit young for that?"

Charlotte laughed out loud. "What's wrong with younger men and older women, Joe? I think it's kind of sexy!" Joseph's face went red. "Besides," she continued, "he's really not much younger than you. Maybe only a couple of years."

Charlotte was immensely enjoying her friend's obvious discomfort at this line of discussion. It wasn't often she got to see him flustered like this. As he seemed to be searching unsuccessfully for a reply to her last statement, she finally took pity on him.

"Don't worry, though," she said.

"Worry? About what?" Joseph asked, a little too quickly.

Charlotte giggled. "I think she thinks of him more as a relative, perhaps, than as a friend." Charlotte's subtle emphasis on the word friend wasn't lost on Joseph.

"How can you be so sure?" Joseph queried. "Her Majesty doesn't disclose her personal feelings to anyone. You can't possibly know who she might or might not be, uh, interested in."

Charlotte rolled her eyes at him. 'Honestly!' she thought. 'Sometimes this is just like being back in the 7th grade.' She grinned at Joseph. "I know because I asked her!"

"You asked her?" He was somewhat shocked. He waited a moment for Charlotte to continue. When she didn't, he began to get the idea that she was toying with him. He slouched down into his chair and grinned at her. "Ok, I'll bite. I admit I'm curious. What did she say?"

"Well, truthfully, I would never have been so presumptuous as to just ask her about him, but one day when Lord Sadique was here they'd been out for a walk in the gardens and when she came back inside she looked positively radiant. He had already left the palace and she was humming when she came back here to finish her work. I merely said I thought she looked very happy and relaxed." Charlotte leaned back in her chair and pulled at the hem of her jacket, a move that was an unconscious imitation of her employer. "She said Andre always has that effect on her. I screwed up my courage and said he certainly seemed to enjoy her company as well and did that mean we would be seeing more of him?"

Joseph unwittingly scooted closer to the edge of his chair.

"She said no, even though he might have other ideas. I believe her exact words were something like 'He might like to be more than just a good friend, but I could never think of him in that way.'"

Joseph seemed to relax back into the chair once again.

"She was in such a good mood and I have to admit I was deeply curious, so I asked why not. She laughed and told me that he was like a brother to her and no matter how attractive he might be; they could never be more than just good friends." Charlotte chuckled and Joseph joined her.

"You know, they do sort of look alike," he mused with a grin. Then his voice became more sober. "Do you suppose it's possible to know someone too well to be attracted to them?"

"Well, yes, in some cases," she said. She almost laughed out loud at the look of disappointment on his face. Just then the door to the Queen's office opened and Clarisse stepped out to hand Charlotte a file.

"Hello Joseph," she said, her rich voice wrapping itself all around the syllables of his name. She looked from one to the other of them. "You two certainly seem to be deep in conversation. Am I missing something important?" She leaned against the doorjamb and removed her reading glasses.

"Nothing, Your Majesty," Joseph said as he jumped to his feet. His manner was suddenly nervous.

"Ah. Well, is there anything I can do for you?" she asked, toying with the glasses in her hand.

"No, nothing. Nothing at all." He again spoke too quickly and didn't quite meet her gaze. Charlotte watched as Clarisse regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment, before gathering herself up and turning back towards her office.

"Very well. I'll see you later then."

"Goodbye, Your Majesty. Have a nice afternoon." His reply was lost as she closed the door behind her.

Charlotte just shook her head. Really, this situation was just too ridiculous some days. Joseph was almost out the door, heading for his office, when she called to him. "Joe!"

"Yes?"

"Sometimes friends know each other too well to be attracted to one another. But other times I think people who know each other very well mistake that attraction for just friendship when in reality it is much deeper than that."

He considered her words, then smiled at her, nodded and left the office. She could hear him whistling as he walked away down the hall.