Author's Note: Sorry for the delay. Believe it or not the dog ate my homework. Or at the very least I think she ran off with my flash drive. I lost the drive that I had this story saved on. After two days of frantic searching, I gave up and managed - hopefully! - to reconstruct this last chapter. Thank God and Google that my deleted emails had not been trashed and I found Mellie's last revisions. So, here it is, the hopefully complete final chapter. Thank you all for your incredible reviews - they make my day and keep me writing!
Clarisse could feel the knot her nerves knitted in the pit of her stomach as she approached the witness stand for the second time. She knew this time the questions would come from her friend, Minister Motaz, but she couldn't help feeling exposed to public view as never before. She had never spoken about the secrets of her marriage to anyone, much less in a public forum. Facing the packed courtroom for the second time tested her composure severely.
After a few preliminaries, Motaz moved right to the heart of his questioning.
"Your Majesty, yesterday the prosecutor insinuated that you were angry with your husband King Rupert and you wanted him out of the way. You admitted that at times, there were problems between yourself and His Majesty, is that correct?"
"At times, yes. But for most of our marriage we were very happy together."
"And when His Majesty died, how did you feel?"
"Feel? I felt like anyone else would, Sebastian." Her voice held an edge of annoyance. She paused. This was not one of the questions he'd read to her in their ride over, but she recognized his strategy. He wanted her to show her feelings, to make the jury understand that she wasn't cold and uncaring; that she had the same feelings as they did. But that didn't make it any easier. "I lost my husband of more than 30 years. He…he died in my arms…"
"And did you intend to become sole reigning monarch upon the death of the King?"
"No. That was Phillipe's job. But Rupert died somewhat unexpectedly. Phillipe still had six months left in his military commitment; then he was entering a graduate school program in diplomacy and foreign relations. The school was in Paris and he felt it was imperative that he finish his education before assuming the throne. I agreed to remain on the throne until he finished the two-year program."
"So your plan was never to rule indefinitely?" Sebastian was looking at the jury as he asked this question.
"No. I had…other plans. But fate changed that." She took a deep breath and smoothed her skirt over her knee.
"How did King Rupert die?" Sebastian asked quietly.
"I always thought it was… He…he had a heart attack. His second. He wasn't…strong enough to survive a second attack."
"And did His Majesty ask you to do anything for him prior to this attack?"
"He asked me to administer some medicine for him." Her gaze softened, but her voice remained firm.
"Was this unusual?"
"Yes. He had nurses who normally supervised his medication. However, he said this particular medicine was an herbal stimulant of some sort that a friend had supplied to him. He told me he'd been using it for a while to give him a temporary boost when he needed it."
"And did you do as he asked?
"You've seen the autopsy report the prosecution has entered into evidence?"
"You understand that it shows His Majesty was poisoned?"
"Yes," she said quietly.
"And do you have any beliefs about how he was poisoned?"
"After this autopsy, my guess is that the poison would have been in that medication. I don't know for sure, but it makes logical sense." She dropped her gaze and took a deep breath. She sat silently for a moment, physically willing herself not to give in to tears. When she regained her control she lifted her head and said, "And that means I was the one who administered the final dose. I put the nail in his coffin. He died…" her voice choked. "…because of me." Again she seemed to be fighting for control. The courtroom was hushed. She withdrew a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and twisted it furiously in her hands.
When she spoke again her voice had a harsh edge – as if she'd been crying. "I don't know who the so-called friend was, and I don't know what the drug was. But the evidence appears to indicate that this medication is what killed Rupert."
"And did you knowingly do anything to help with or hasten that death, Your Majesty?" Sebastian asked softly.
"No. No, I didn't," her voice regained its confident air. "He was a good man and a wonderful King. He was the father of my children and…and he was my best friend. Rupert was the one person who understood me and who I really was underneath all the…the trappings of office." She sat up even straighter in the chair.
"No matter how angry I was with him – and there were times when he made me so angry I couldn't see straight – I could never have hurt him. He meant far too much to me for that. It was hard enough to lose him so soon when I thought he died of natural causes. But to know that someone deliberately took his life – that is like losing him all over again. It is so unfair… to me, to Pierre, even to all of you," her gesture encompassed the courtroom. "Someone has taken Rupert away from me, but from all of you as well. I have not gained from this. I have lost more than you will ever know. My husband can't rest in peace – his killer is on the loose. That's what makes this so tragic. Not only was I ignorant of the fact that my husband was murdered, but now I stand accused of committing that crime. The real murderer remains free and unscathed."
There was a pause as Sebastian pondered his next question and allowed Clarisse's answer to sink in with the jury. The quiet was shattered suddenly when the doors at the back of the courtroom burst open, slamming against the walls behind them.
"Joseph!" Clarisse gasped. Her bodyguard strode purposefully into the room, black trench coat billowing out behind him like a cape. He leaned close to the minister's ear and they had a quick whispered conference.
"Mr. Romero! You will enter this courtroom with respect and in silence! I will hold you in contempt for disrupting these proceedings without batting an eye, am I understood?" The judge favored Joseph with a harsh glare. Joseph gave him a curt nod but didn't turn his attention away from the Prime Minister. He handed Sebastian a small sheaf of papers and again whispered in his ear. They were interrupted by the judge. "Minister Motaz?" the judge said testily after a few moments. "Your witness awaits."
"Just one moment, please Your Honor," Sebastian said. He and Joseph whispered together a moment longer. Then Sebastian got to his feet and started to address the Court. For the first time since he'd entered the courtroom, Joseph looked directly at Clarisse. A smile warmed his face and he gave her a slow deliberate wink.
At the sight of that smile, Clarisse finally relaxed the death grip she had on the arms of her chair.
Sebastian spoke, "Your Honor, I realize this is unusual, but Mr. Romero has provided information as to the identity of the person responsible for the death of King Rupert. That person is now in custody and has signed a full confession. We have that confession here. The confession was witnessed by Mr. Romero himself, as well as several other police officials. If it pleases the Court, the defendant would like to offer this confession as defendant's exhibit one and we move that the charges against Her Majesty be dropped immediately."
Clarisse closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes, the prosecutor was pouring over the written confession and Sebastian was standing next to the witness stand in front of her. Her eyes quickly scanned for Joseph, and her heart leaped with joy when she found him standing behind her, in his customary position. Joseph stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest, looking every bit like a disinterested security guard. But she could see the wrinkles around his eyes deepen as he fought to keep his expression neutral.
Finally the prosecutor looked up from the paperwork, took a deep breath and said, "The Crown has no objection to the defendant's motion for charges to be dismissed."
The judge stared open-mouthed at the prosecutor for a long, tense moment. Then he rapped his gavel. "Case dismissed!" The courtroom erupted into thunderous cheers and applause. Clarisse couldn't move. Not until Joseph stepped up beside her, his hand on her arm. She looked up into his eyes.
"Is it over, Joseph? Really over?"
"Yes, it is Your Majesty. Now, please stand up and let me take you home."
He grinned and she stood up, threw her arms around his neck, and hugged him hard. She whispered in his ear, "I will always trust you Joseph, and I had faith that you wouldn't let me down." Suddenly, she realized that they were in a very public place. She quickly released him, tugging at the hem of her jacket as she stepped back.
Sebastian was ginning at them. Clarisse looked from one man to the other. "Can one of you gentlemen let me borrow a phone?" she asked. "I need to call my chef."
The impromptu dinner for the staff and the newly released Queen was a rousing success. The drinks flowed freely and the laughter was loud and carefree. Clarisse watched all from her seat at the head of the table, reveling in the sights and sounds of celebration.
It had been a long, hard day. No one spoke the name of the killer while they were in the courtroom. Clarisse somehow sensed that this was something she didn't want to be told while out in public. She didn't ask Joseph who it was until they were safely ensconced in the back of the limo, cut off from public view. It broke her heart to learn of the betrayal of someone she had trusted and cared for. But that heartbreak paled in comparison to her anger. She wanted Andre hanged. She wanted him beaten. She wanted him to hurt.
Joseph let her vent. He listened patiently while she ranted and raved. Finally, her initial anger spent, she went for a long, solitary walk in her garden, mourning her losses once again. Joseph watched over her from afar, savoring the sense of peace he felt for the first time in weeks. She was home and she was safe.
The casual banquet that Clarisse requested was pulled together magnificently by the kitchen staff. The chef had promised her all her favorite foods and delivered in spades. She made sure the palace wine cellars were fully utilized and that everyone working in the palace had the evening off to eat together and celebrate as one huge family. Finally, when she couldn't stifle her yawns any longer, she gave a last toast to her staff, then rose and headed for her rooms.
She tried to be surreptitious as she surveyed the revelers, looking for Joseph. There was no sign of him. She walked slowly up the grand staircase, trailing her fingers along the smoothly polished banister. The sound of her footsteps echoed slightly in the deserted corridors.
She stopped at the end of the hallway, looking towards the doors of her suite. He was waiting for her there. She couldn't help but smile as she finally realized what he had known all along. There were no footmen or guards on duty. They were all at dinner.
She would be unprotected here, and more importantly, she would be all alone.
"I assume you neglected your dinner because you were worried that my empty rooms were languishing up here, unsecured and unprotected?
"Yes ma'am. You see, I knew you would end up here eventually and I didn't want you to be without your personal security any longer. That has happened far too often in recent days. Besides, you previously suggested additional security discussions, and it is obvious that this area of your knowledge is sadly, sadly deficient, Your Majesty. You gave all my men the night off. That means I have to take up for their slack."
She could see the ghost of a smile on his lips as she traversed the distance between them. "You are always so efficient and knowledgeable, Joseph. Does this mean you have to spend the night out here in this cold, dark hallway?"
"I'm afraid so. You may not know this, but my employer is a real slave driver. I wouldn't dare desert my post." He was grinning widely at her now.
"Good for you," she said and patted his cheek somewhat absently with one hand as she opened her door with the other. "Well, have a lovely evening. I'll see you tomorrow, I'm sure." With that she stepped inside and closed the door behind her.
Joseph stood staring after her, slightly open-mouthed. The moment stretched out immeasurably. Finally he chuckled to himself and leaned back against the wall next to the door, hands thrust deep in his pockets.
It wasn't long until the door opened once again and she eyed him appraisingly from the threshold. "Seriously, Joseph, how long are you prepared to stand there?" she asked, her eyes twinkling merrily.
He looked over and raised an eyebrow at her. "Would you rather I sit?" He began to slide slowly down the wall. She burst out laughing and grabbed his arm, pulling him towards the door.
"Come inside and keep me company. I'm tired of being alone," she said. He followed her inside, hesitating at the door to her bedroom, unsure if she meant for him to follow her in there.
She didn't notice his hesitation until she grasped the bedpost for balance while leaning over to remove her shoes. She smiled at him and beckoned him inside with one of the shoes. "Please come in. I won't be a moment." She removed the second shoe and padded her way across the thick carpet to her dressing room.
She kept up a stream of light, meaningless conversation as she puttered about in the dressing room. He couldn't tell what she was doing, but assumed she must be changing clothes. Joseph tried to remind his body of the mechanics of respiration – breathe in, breathe out – as he waited. He'd been in her bedroom before, but only when he sat with her through an illness or the long night of grief following the death of Phillipe. He'd never been in here with her when she was, well, fully conscious. He continued to stand at the foot of her bed, hands clasped in front of his body.
Clarisse fumbled about in the dressing room, looking for something to wear. She kept talking as a means of occupying her racing mind. She didn't want to think about what she was doing. What was she doing, anyway? She wasn't sure. She just knew she needed to be with Joseph, here and now, and everything else be damned.
She finally managed to put on a pair of lounging pajamas. They were perfectly presentable and covered more skin than the dress she'd been wearing, but her face flushed at the thought of wearing only pajamas with Joseph in her bedroom. 'What the hell am I doing?' she asked herself again. She slipped into a soft cotton robe, belting it tightly around her waist. Sucking in a deep breath, she stepped back out into the bedroom.
'Oh, God!' she thought, running a hand nervously through her hair. 'Now what?' She marveled at the way Joseph stood at the foot of her bed – utterly calm, cool and collected. Didn't he know how his very presence made a shambles of her composure?
Joseph looked up as Clarisse came into the room. 'Oh, God!' he thought as she smiled at him and ran a hand seductively through her hair. 'Now what?' He marveled at the way she looked elegant and majestic, even when wearing a simple robe and pajamas. 'Pajamas?!' Didn't she know what she was doing to him? Didn't she realize how dangerous the situation had become?
Clarisse cleared her throat somewhat nervously as she crossed the room to pick up a remote control from her bedside table. She gestured with it towards the television mounted on the wall opposite the bed. "Shall we see what the evening news has to say about all of this?"
He nodded mutely and followed her lead, taking a seat on the foot of the bed. They both leaned back against opposite bedposts, each unconsciously moving as far from the other as possible while still remaining on the bed. The screen came alive and showed the talking head who hosted the evening news cast.
The commentator was soon replaced by a smiling George Roque who'd held a press conference earlier in the afternoon detailing the arrests made in the case. Then the newscaster's face filled the screen again.
"Queen Clarisse was completely exonerated as a result of the investigation spear-headed by Captain Roque and the Head of Palace Security, Joseph Romero," he intoned. The scene then switched to a shot of the Queen leaving the courthouse earlier that day on Joseph's arm, flanked by Prime Minister Motaz. She smiled brilliantly as she acknowledged the throng of well-wishers who filled the street. "Several members of Parliament have issued statements tonight praising the judicial system for a successful outcome and reiterating their long-held faith in Her Majesty's innocence."
Clarisse gave a rather inelegant snort of laughter at that statement. Joseph couldn't help but smile at her. Then a photo of Andre being hauled away in a police car in the early hours of the morning was posted behind the anchorman's head.
Clarisse sighed heavily. "Andre… Yesterday I would have told you he was one of the very few people in my life that I could count as friends. As family, almost. And today I learn how completely he's betrayed me. And Rupert…" Her voice trailed off.
"He fooled us all, Clarisse," Joseph said compassionately. "He was consumed by greed, although he hid it very well. The story I got out of him was that his uncle's death revealed a sheaf of debt that left him all but bankrupt. Rather than rebuild his fortune through legal means, he turned to the quick money he could get through the drug trade. He had all the right contacts, on both sides of the law. The man is a chameleon, able to adapt to whatever society he is in."
She nodded sadly. "Yesterday I told him I could read him like a book. Today, I feel like that book was a work of fiction – complete and utter lies."
The news anchor continued, "What remains unclear this evening is the fate of Baron Adolphus Von Troken. He asserts, through his attorney, that his involvement in the scheme to implicate Her Majesty was an innocent mistake and that he was duped by his cousin, Lord Andre Sadique, into complicity with the plan. At last report, the Baron was still in the custody of Captain Roque and undergoing extensive questioning. Von Troken has agreed to full cooperation with The Crown in hopes of avoiding prosecution."
"That little weasel will probably manage to get out of serving any jail time," Joseph groused at the screen.
"No doubt," Clarisse sighed then she laughed. "At least I managed to get out of serving time, as well!"
Joseph looked at her and smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Don't even joke about that, Clarisse," he said seriously.
She smiled warmly at him then. "I was never really worried about it."
"Liar!" he said.
She shook her head in reply. "I always had confidence in you. I…I rely on you more than you know, Joseph. This was a horrible experience, but I never doubted you and I never stopped trusting you."
It was his turn to laugh, somewhat sourly. "I wish you could've given me some of that confidence. I've never been more worried in my life!" His head was lowered as he spoke and he studied the toes of his black boots, contemplating what could have happened.
Clarisse watched him silently for a moment, struck by the realization of what he must be feeling. He seemed to sense her gaze and turned his eyes to hers. They shone with a faint sheen of unshed tears. Something in that gaze broke through her wall of inhibition and before she knew what was happening, she crossed the distance between them and captured his lips in a tantalizing kiss. Her hands moved from the sides of his face, down his neck and inside the collar of his shirt. She could feel the shudder that ran through his body as she touched his skin.
He reached up and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer. She deepened the kiss; giving herself over to the white heat she could feel building inside her core. He responded in kind, tasting and teasing her. One hand entangled in her hair, the other caressed her lower back.
When they finally broke the kiss, she wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. "I owe you so much, Joseph! Thank you for…for everything," she said.
"You're quite welcome." He pulled back from her, and looked into her eyes, then asked the question that had been haunting him since yesterday. "You said that you knew Lord Sadique too well for you to be lovers." She nodded somewhat quizzically and he leaned in close again, his lips grazing her skin just below her jaw line. "Do you know me too well?" His voice tickled the nape of her neck, sending fabulous shivers chasing down her spine.
"Oooooh Joseph, I know you so well that it scares me." She pushed away from him rather reluctantly, but she needed to look into his eyes. "Yes, I knew Andre like a book – a fiction one apparently. But I know you like a book as well. You're that one book that has always sat on the shelf, patiently awaiting its turn to be read. Others have appeared to be the story that I needed to read, or even wanted to read, only to leave me unsatisfied. You are the book I've always wanted to read, but I never had the chance. I've read your synopsis and it's thrilling and intriguing. But your pages are a mystery to me, and I find that highly stimulating," she grinned wickedly at him. This elicited a laugh from Joseph, a deep sensual sound that she found irresistible. She leaned in and kissed the side of his neck. At the touch of her mouth, his laugh turned to a soft groan. She moved her mouth back to his and promptly lost track of time and space.
Joseph's hands caressed her shoulders and her neck. Finally he shifted away from her slightly and looked at her, his eyes asking a silent question as his hands slipped inside her robe. He felt her body stiffen and saw the doubt creep into her eyes. He bit back a sigh and moved his arms away from her body.
Clarisse cursed herself silently. She knew she'd done the wrong thing. But he made her so nervous, so scared. "Joseph, I think it's time I took you off the shelf and began reading you." She took a deep breath and leaned closer, wrapping her arms around him and pulling his head down to hers. Their lips met in another fiery kiss. She wanted him to know how badly she desired him; to know that the desire was much stronger than the fear.
But he pulled away from the kiss, reached up and grasped her wrists, untangling her arms from his neck and pushing her away from him. She looked at him quizzically. "What's wrong?" she asked.
His eyes burned and his gaze raked over her body. "Be careful with this, Clarisse. Don't start this story unless you are prepared for me to finish it," his voice was soft, but there was an unmistakable challenge in his tone.
She grasped his shoulders and pulled his body with her as she lay back on the bed. Her mouth covered his and her body surrendered as she realized that was the sexiest thing she'd ever heard him say.