§ § § -- September 3, 2004
"He's found something?" Carl Johan asked, seeing Anna-Laura's hazel eyes pop wide open. "What is it?"
Anna-Laura's hand drifted to the base of her throat and settled there; she seemed unaware that Amalia and Leslie had both come to the computer to see. "Leave it to Christian," she finally said.
"Leave what to Christian?" Leslie asked excitedly.
Anna-Laura turned to her and blinked before beginning to shake her head, speaking in disbelief as she did so. "He says a diver on Hunter II actually found the first crown," she said. "He also says that the captain is on his way to Vattenskant right now so that he can come ashore with the crown and all the other things the divers have found from those Irish shipwrecks. He wants a chauffeur to meet him there."
"He couldn't have!" Amalia cried, stunned.
Carl Johan started to laugh. "Why couldn't he?" he asked. "After every other fantastic thing Christian's done or been through since he became a resident of Fantasy Island, I have to admit I'm not especially surprised. If someone were going to find that crown after so long, it might as well be Christian."
Leslie giggled at the teasing look he cast her. "Well, Susanna, Karina and Tobias are in good hands with their cousins and Ingrid," she noted, "so I'm going with the chauffeur. It's been long enough since I saw my husband, and I want to be part of the welcome wagon when he gets back onto dry land."
Her in-laws laughed. "Yes, I suppose I can't blame you," Anna-Laura said indulgently. "Let me call a servant in here and send him to notify a chauffeur to bring a car around front, and you'll be on your way to Vattenskant shortly, Leslie."
"Wonderful," Leslie said. "I think I'd better call Father, too, and let him know what happened. I was actually supposed to go back to work this weekend, according to our original plans, but obviously that's not going to happen just yet." They all laughed, and Anna-Laura gestured at her telephone.
About ten minutes later Leslie was in the back of one of the royal limos on her way to Vattenskant, anticipation rising in her with every moment. Vattenskant was mostly an upper-class bedroom community whose residents nearly all worked in the capital city about ten kilometers east, but there was a street along the waterfront where local businesses were located, within sight of the harbor that occupied a natural indent in the coastline. It was at the entrance to the harbor that the chauffeur parked and waited, letting the engine idle; for September it had turned out to be a chilly day and Leslie was glad of the heat in the car. She kept scanning the horizon for an incoming vessel, and before too long she was rewarded by the sight ofHunter II making for the harbor.
Within minutes of its docking she saw a figure disembark, loaded down with what looked like bags of all sorts. Leslie stared in perplexity while the chauffeur got out of the front seat and jogged down to assist Christian in loading the canvas bags into the trunk of the car. It didn't take long, and when Christian opened the back door and gently set a box on the seat inside, she leaned forward and grinned at him. "Hi, my love!"
"Leslie, my Rose! I didn't expect to see you here!" Christian exclaimed, climbing into the car and settling down beside her. The chauffeur slammed the door shut after him and went around to the driver's side while Christian turned to Leslie and hugged her close. "It's a treat to be with you again!"
Leslie squeezed him and drew back, grinning sheepishly. "I don't mean to insult you," she said, "but you kind of smell…well, like dirt."
"I should," Christian said, laughing. "Fate knows I scraped enough dirt and other garbage off this thing. Look, my Rose, I still can't believe we found this." He lifted the box and settled it in her lap, then folded back the flaps on the top. Leslie peered inside and gasped at the crown, nestled on a bed of towels. Christian grinned at her reaction. "Isn't it amazing? It still needs a little fine cleaning and then some polishing, but there's no question that this is the lost first crown. Perhaps we can ease up on poor old Erik the Loser now that it's been recovered."
Leslie burst out laughing and met his lips with hers, over the top of the box. "I never got to see it, since that pirate stole it long before I showed up in that fantasy, so I have to agree with you—it really is amazing. My gosh, look at all these jewels! You can hardly even see what's holding them together. Is that gold?"
"Yes, it is," Christian said, lifting the crown out of the box so they could see it in the light. "I can only imagine the artisanship that went into the making of this thing." He put the crown back. "At any rate, I expect the next great debate will center on where this crown is to reside—whether at the castle or at the museum. I'm sure popular sentiment will side with the museum, but if truth be told, I myself think it should remain at the castle. It's the property of the royal family, after all."
"I can understand your sentiments, my love," Leslie said a little dubiously, "but I have a feeling you're going to be vastly outnumbered. After all, the royal family already has a crown, replacement or no. This one's a huge piece of jordisk history, and it deserves to be at the museum where the people can come and see it. The museum will have a much better security system than there is at the castle, and they'll take proper care of it too."
Christian nodded, looking reluctant, and admitted, "I have to be honest; the thought occurred to me as well. Perhaps I'm simply feeling possessive." He smiled wryly at her laugh and reached across the box to smooth her hair. "Well, in any case, for now we'll have it at the castle, and once the family has taken a good look at it, we'll contact the museum and arrange to take it there—this, and everything that's in the trunk. The divers came back with so many odds and ends, it dazzled my eyes just to look at them." He sighed heavily, then closed his eyes for a moment and arched his back inward, groaning. "Right now, all I care about is a very long, very hot, very soapy shower…and then a night with you and our babies. Oh yes…and something to eat. I've been living on sandwiches, soup and granola bars."
Leslie giggled and patted his arm. "Poor Christian. I bet the triplets will be glad to see you. I know I am. It's been strange without you."
"Has it?" Christian inquired, grinning. "Well, it's been odd for me without you as well. It feels good to be back on dry land. How much publicity have the triplets generated? I don't suppose you've already been asked for interviews."
"Dozens of times over," said Leslie. "The castle secretary's been putting them all off so they could get family portraits with you in them. Just as well. I didn't want to face them all by myself."
"You wouldn't have been alone," Christian pointed out impishly. "You'd have had the triplets there with you."
Leslie rolled her eyes, making him laugh. "Oh, you know what I mean. I'm so glad you're back. I talked to Father before I came out here with the chauffeur and told him it looked like you'd come up with that crown, and he laughed and said he has a feeling that the uproar that creates is going to keep us here for quite some time yet. I told him we'll try to be home in two weeks, but he said not to bet on it. He must know something I don't."
"That wouldn't be unusual," Christian remarked. "For right now, all I care about is that shower. Clean clothes, a large hot supper, and you. As much fun as I've had on this excursion, my darling, I've missed you, and I'm very glad to be with you again." He set the box aside, on the seat opposite them, then drew her into his arms and kissed her.
The entire royal family met them in the great entry, everyone from Carl Johan, Amalia and Anna-Laura down to their grandchildren. Even Gerhard and Liselotta had brought Matteus and Viktoria in from the city, and Anna-Laura held Lisi, while Gabriella, Ingrid and Amalia each carried a triplet. Those who were old enough to understand the significance of Christian's homecoming zeroed in on the box he carried. "Is that it?" Anna-Laura demanded excitedly.
"This is it, yes," Christian said, chuckling at her covetous look. "I think we'd better take this somewhere other than the great entry, before word spreads beyond the family."
"A good idea," said Carl Johan. "It may as well be your suite."
"Suite?" Christian echoed blankly as the group began to move toward the entrance to the west corridor.
Leslie grinned. "Gabriella put us in Anna-Kristina's old room. Beats the heck out of our former accommodations, and the triplets get to watch the sun set."
"Well, well," Christian murmured and grinned at his niece. "I appreciate it, Briella. I hope you don't mind if I chase everyone out once you've all seen the crown, because I want a shower in the worst possible way, and I want some time alone with Leslie."
"What about your poor children, Uncle Christian?" scolded Margareta.
Christian quirked an eyebrow at her. "Considering this is the first time most of the family has met the triplets, I daresay they'll be with the rest of you whether we wish it or not, at least till someone finds out they're hungry or need changing." Everyone laughed, and the group filed into the huge room Christian and Leslie were now sharing with their children. Gabriella, the last one in, pushed the door firmly closed behind her.
"Come on, now, let's see it," Anna-Laura demanded.
"Calm down, äldresyster," Christian said, very amused at her. He set the box on the bed and folded back the flaps. "While we're waiting for Magga, Gerhard, Roald and Rudolf to bring back all the bags of treasure the boat crew loaded me down with, let me present to you, only slightly the worse for wear, the long-lost first royal crown of Lilla Jordsö." Leslie grinned, watching the family's expressions, while Christian carefully lifted out the crown and displayed it at the family. To a person, eyes went huge with mesmerized wonder, and the toddlers all reached out in an attempt to touch it, prompting their parents to restrain them. Even the triplets seemed to be fascinated, all three staring at the crown or at their father. Leslie reached out and took Karina from Amalia's arms, holding the baby so she could see all the jewels.
"So that's what it looks like," Gabriella finally breathed. "I never imagined it was so big! We're going to have quite the job keeping it safe."
"I expect the museum in Dalslund will have that worry," Christian said, watching Anna-Laura deposit Lisi in Amalia's arms so that she could take a turn at holding the crown and examining it firsthand. "I had the same thought, that it should remain here with the family, but Leslie pointed out to me that the museum will take good care of it, that they have a far better security system than we do, and that the people deserve to have the chance to see it as well. We already have a perfectly suitable crown for whatever occasions call for such a thing, and this one is not only a historical relic, it's also much too large and gaudy to wear in these modern times." He looked up to see several sets of amused eyes on him and shrugged cheerfully. "Well, that's my opinion, in any case."
Chuckles broke out and Anna-Laura remarked, "I must agree there. Not only that, but I have a feeling it's too fragile to risk anyone's wearing it—just look at how little gold is holding all these gems in place! I wonder that no stones are missing, or that there was so little damage to it. And all these stones are worth a massive fortune, I might add. That alone would make me hesitant to risk wearing this in public. I think the wisest course of action here is to contact the museum and swear them to secrecy, so that we can have this transported there without the need for an armored car and hundreds of guards."
There was a unanimous consensus on this, and on that note Christian replaced the crown in its box and put it underneath Karina's crib. "We'll let Karina play bodyguard tonight," he joked, grinning. "Now if everyone wouldn't mind, I'd like to get myself cleaned up and presentable in time for supper with the family."
"We'll have the triplets in my suite if you're worried about them," Gabriella said with a grin. "Liselotta's been enchanted."
Liselotta grinned a little sheepishly. "They are lovely babies," she said, "and also, I think our Viktoria wants to become friends!"
"That'd be perfect," Leslie said, laughing. "Okay, Gabriella, then I guess Christian and I will come over to your suite when we're ready."
Once everyone else was gone, Christian opened his suitcase on the floor and went through the contents for some clean clothing. "Alone at last," he said and grinned. "Liselotta is doing very well with her English, don't you think?"
"She's making real progress," Leslie said, nodding. "I hope Ingrid is as quick a study. Do you realize we're the parents of three-month-olds, as of yesterday? I can't believe how quickly the triplets are growing. Father's going to claim he doesn't recognize them whenever we finally get home."
Christian laughed. "I barely recognize them myself, almost. Three months!"
"They laughed this week," Leslie told him excitedly. "All three of them. Their cousins have been playing with them so much that they're turning into a trio of social butterflies. At this rate they'll be hamming it up for the camera whenever we let the press in for those pictures they want."
"Oh no, and I missed it," Christian said, disappointed. "I hope they'll laugh at dinner later on. Nearly a week away from the four of you and I feel like a stranger already. It's good for them to know their cousins, though. I think it's one of the disadvantages of living away from the castle as I do—that they won't be too familiar with the family. We could have had a great deal of assistance with the babies as well."
"You'd go stir-crazy within days," Leslie said knowingly, "and I'd get homesick."
"I suppose I would," Christian admitted. "But the atmosphere here is different with Briella as queen. With both Father and Arnulf gone, the place is happier, more relaxed. I'll look forward to bringing the children for visits when we can get here. My one regret is that Mother couldn't be here to enjoy them."
Leslie grinned. "Well, you'll be happy to know that they're now down to one feeding at night. Ingrid and I started experimenting with giving them more milk at the last feeding in the evening, and it seemed to work right off, with all three of them, no less. Tobias held out a couple of nights and woke me up twice each time, but then he seemed to give up and joined the girls in getting down to one feeding. If we're lucky, by Christmas we might be sleeping through the night."
"Ah, now there's a novelty," Christian said with a laugh. "I've begun to forget what that's like. Well, if you'll pardon me awhile, my Rose, I'll get cleaned up. I'm beginning to be afraid I can feel things crawling on me." Leslie laughed, and he headed for the oversized bathroom and shut himself in.
Half an hour later he emerged, by which time Leslie had gotten engrossed in a book and didn't notice him come out. "Must be interesting," he commented.
She started and looked up. "Oh, hi! Finally got done, huh?"
"Very funny," he said good-naturedly. "Actually, I feel much better now." Christian crossed the room and sat beside her, pulling her around so that her legs fell across his lap and he had an arm securely around her upper back. "And I plan to enjoy whatever time alone with you I can get before someone bursts in on us." Leslie smiled at that, and they cuddled together and indulged in a long, leisurely kiss.
After a while Christian sighed and drew back just enough to speak. "Do you have any idea at all how wonderful it feels to be back with you again?" he murmured.
"Yes, because I was away from you too," Leslie reminded him softly, smiling a little. "Stop wasting our time, my love, and kiss me again while we still can." Christian let out a soft amused huff and obliged.
§ § § -- September 4, 2004
Christian and Leslie had just retreated with the triplets to the room next door to what was known as the receiving room, where most royal television press conferences were held, waiting in the sanctuary of this room while the assorted broadcast and print media members broke down their equipment and cleared out. Not only had Susanna, Karina and Tobias been properly introduced to the people of Lilla Jordsö, but Christian had also found himself responding to already-flying rumors about a "great treasure" he had found while at sea with the salvage expedition. He had explained that the Royal Glory had been positively located and identified, and that arrangements were now under way for getting the ship raised and transported to the museum for restoration and display. However, when one persistent reporter had pressed for information on the so-called "treasure", Christian had firmly said that at the moment he had no information and would release the news when it was deemed proper to do so.
"I don't think they were very happy about it," Leslie told him now, securing her two daughters on her lap and watching as Christian gently stroked his sleepy son's back.
"That's their problem," Christian said carelessly. "We have to get the crown safely to the museum before we divulge any information about it, and it makes no difference to me how little the media likes it. Truly, no matter what you give them, it's never enough for them anymore—though I do know they were very pleasantly surprised to hear you speak a little jordiska. I'm so proud of you, my Rose." He smiled lovingly at her, then glanced around. "Where's Briella?"
Carl Johan overheard and said, "Gone off to listen to the windbags in parliament debating your right to your title, again. She told us there was no reason for her to be at the conference and left just as the media were arriving. So what do you plan next?"
"Making sure that crown gets to the museum," Christian said. "Has Anna-Laura called them yet?"
"Yes, in fact, she's waiting for some representatives to arrive," Carl Johan said. "It's going to be quite the news story when it gets out, and I hope you're prepared to be held up as a national hero."
"Herregud," Christian complained, "I didn't even find it—a diver aboardHunter II did! The only thing I can be credited with is being in the right place at the right time. If I had my way, I'd see the crown delivered to the museum, then pack all our bags and get back home with Leslie and the triplets immediately. Instead I suppose I'll have to face another round of questions once it's revealed that the original crown has been recovered."
Carl Johan laughed. "It won't matter that you were just a spectator when the crown was found—only that you brought it home. Face it, Christian, you did just that."
"He's right, my love, sorry," Leslie said lightly, grinning at him. "You're the only one who came off the boat, carrying all that pirate loot along with the crown. Maybe the diver found it, but you made sure it got home again. Do you suppose the media types are gone yet? I can tell Susanna needs a diaper change."
Carl Johan laughed again and shook his head. "No, they take some time to get all their paraphernalia and leave us in peace. Perhaps if—" Just then the door flew open and Gabriella herself strode into the room, startling them.
"I thought you were sitting in on the latest hot-air-production session at parliament," Christian said.
Gabriella snorted and tossed her head. "I just put a stop to it," she said. "I have something in mind for you, Uncle Christian, and in any case I've heard much more than enough of those procrastinating idiots who were trying to throw verbal roadblocks in my way."
Before she could say any more, Christian exchanged a look with Carl Johan and commented, "I have a feeling I'm not going to like this."
Leslie eyed Gabriella warily. "So what's your grand plan?"
Gabriella responded with an excited grin and leaned forward as if in confidence. "It shocked everyone in parliament, believe me. This is what I said…"
Christian and Leslie are in for a big shock and a long battle with publicity that will get them far more attention than they ever dreamed of—or bargained for…