A/N Well. This is it. I've had a ton of fun writing this and I've been ecstatic over all your reviews. Thank you for sticking with me. It took a while to finish this last chapter. Thanks to marjorienescio for all your help on editing this! I need all the help I can get. I still don't own Clarisse and Joe, although their people told my people that life would be more...interesting...if they were a Weirdo property rather than a Disney one.
Thanks again - I hope you enjoy this!
When the doctor came by to examine Joseph the next morning, he found his patient fully clothed, sitting impatiently on the side of the bed with a packed bag on the floor. Joe wasn't taking any answer other the one he wanted to hear.
The doctor pronounced his patient impatient and incorrigible, but agreed to release Joseph – without restriction. Within an hour, Joseph Romero was back at the palace. Back at home.
Shades, who'd been waiting in the parking lot while the doctor examined Joe one last time, was still answering questions from his boss as they walked into through the massive front entry of the castle. Joseph couldn't suppress a grin as his eyes swept in the direction of the sound of heels on a staircase.
It was Charlotte.
She all but skipped to the bottom of the staircase and grabbed Joseph, planting a kiss on his cheek. "Finally! It's so good to have you home, Joe! Nothing has been the same without you here."
Within moments, the entry hall was full of security guards and household staff. Everyone was talking and laughing at once, and the hall was filled with exuberance. It seemed that Charlotte wasn't the only one who felt that something had been completed when Joseph walked through the palace doors once again.
Grateful for the warm welcome, Joseph made the rounds and spoke to as many as he could. The chef assured him that lunch was going to be an event in the world of comfort cuisine – all his favorites were on the menu.
As the crowd began to thin, Joseph managed to pull Charlotte to the side. "How is she?" he asked. His eyes kept stealing back to the staircase as he listened to Charlotte's reply. The Queen had instructed Charlotte to convey her apologies for not being available to greet Joseph when he returned. She was stuck in a meeting, but requested that he relax and stay off duty for the day. 'Settle in' had been her instruction to him. She would call as soon as she was free so that she could greet him properly.
Joseph smiled to himself as he followed Charlotte back up stairs, headed for his rooms. He had no interest in a 'proper' greeting from Clarisse Renaldi. He much preferred her improper persona – the one that laughed and joked with him when no one else was watching.
As he day wore on and there was no word from Clarisse, Joseph began to feel a little uneasy. Under the pretense of checking out staff schedules so he'd know where to start the next day, Joseph perused the security monitors and coverage logs for the morning. Clarisse had indeed been tied up in meetings. For the most part. Joseph sighed and tried to be patient. Finally, later in the afternoon, the phone in his room rang. Charlotte told him the Queen requested his presence in her office.
He knocked and was granted entry. At first he didn't see her. He'd expected her to be at her desk, slogging her way through mountains of paperwork. Instead she was standing off to the side, gazing out the window at her gardens. Her hands were knotted in front of her as they often were when she was worried or nervous. Joseph made sure the door was fully shut before addressing her.
However, before he could speak, she was moving swiftly back to her desk and motioning him to a chair across from her. "Please be seated Joseph. I'm so sorry I wasn't able to meet you earlier. It's been a hectic day." She smiled brightly at him yet it was strangely unsettling rather than reassuring. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"I'm fine," he answered carefully. She was giving off some strange vibes and for the first time in a very long time, he wasn't able to read her.
Clarisse cleared her throat and looked down at the papers strewn on her desk. Then she met his eye across the expanse of the desk. "I have some good news for you," she said and smiled again.
Again Joseph felt like her smile was concealing something. He was more confused than ever. "I'm glad to hear that," he said slowly.
Clarisse leaned back into her desk chair and looked down at her hands which were steepled in front of her. "I've been thinking about how I can express my…appreciation for what you did for me, Joseph." She glanced up at him as she said his name. Her voice warmed perceptibly as she continued. "There are no words to express my gratitude for what you risked. I am very humbled by your actions."
Joseph smiled at her. "You are worth it."
She blushed and dropped her eyes.
"I would do it again in a heart beat," he said, dropping his voice a notch. Her expression changed as his words hung in the air. She drew a breath and seemed to withdraw from him again.
"I know you are not someone who does his job expecting reward, but clearly you have gone above and beyond anything that could have been expected of you. Therefore, I am very pleased to bestow what reward I can upon you. Nothing I have to give could ever fully express my gratitude. But I would like to try." She managed to meet his gaze again at this point, drawing her already perfect posture into ramrod-straight precision .
"I plan to knight you, Joseph. I want to bestow one of the crown's estates on you. You will become Sir Joseph Romero, the Baron of Keniston," she finished triumphantly.
Joseph stared at her open-mouthed. She smiled understandingly and said, "It will be wonderful, won't it? You'll be able to do whatever you want – hunting, fishing, traveling. Keniston is not far from the palace grounds and we'll see you often and --."
"You're sending me away?" he interrupted her, his voice disturbingly quiet. The odd feeling he'd had during this entire meeting had coalesced as he understood the meaning of her words. "This is your idea of reward, Clarisse? To banish me? Why?"
"Banish you? Oh, Joseph, no – you don't understand! We would still see each other, but you wouldn't have to bother with all the problems of your job any longer. It will be better – you'll see!" Her eyes were somewhat fearful as she tried to convince him.
"What is going on, Clarisse?" Joseph asked. "Have I done something wrong? Why are you suddenly so desperate to be rid of me?"
She backed away from the desk and stood up. "I'm sorry you find this so distasteful, Joseph. I want you to have this – you shouldn't have to be my bodyguard any longer. You should live a life of leisure – you've more than earned it. I – I don't want you to be my bodyguard any longer." Her voice faltered somewhat as though she were struggling to sound convincing.
Joseph stood as well. "I don't believe this," he said darkly as he leaned over the desk. "You no longer want my services as your bodyguard. So instead of firing me, you're banishing me under cover of some kind of reward." He shook his head ruefully as he stood straight and backed away from her. "I thought we were better friends than that, Your Majesty." He'd never made her title sound more like a barrier between them before.
"No! That's not it at all, Joseph. Please understand." Her expression was stricken and she reached towards him tentatively.
"I do understand. I understand all too well." Joseph felt as if he'd been kicked in the gut. He backed away. Despite the feelings he thought they shared, she wanted to banish him from her side. She'd lost confidence in his abilities. She didn't trust him any longer. He had to get out of this room before he completely lost it. His hand was on he doorknob by the time she'd come out from behind her desk and crossed the room to grab for his arm.
"Please! Don't go, Joseph," she pleaded softly.
"Isn't that what you want, Clarisse?" he asked, not looking at her.
"No! I want to be with you. Always with you," she said. He looked at her then and she almost gasped at the pain she read in his expression. Pain that she had caused.
"So, in order for you to be with me, you need to set me up as some sort of false aristocrat or something? That's why you want to set me up with this little fiefdom of yours? You can't afford to have feelings for a mere commoner? That hardly makes this situation any better, Your Majesty." Again her title came between them – a wall that stood hard and fast.
Clarisse took a shuddering breath.
"I can't let anything happen to you," she admitted softly. He stared at the door, his hand still on the knob. "If you stay, if someone attacked me again, what would happen to you? I can't let you continue to put yourself at risk like that," she pleaded with him.
He looked at her now, his eyes wary. "What are you talking about?" he asked, somewhat perplexed.
"If something happened to you again, Joseph, I couldn't take it. I can't watch you die. I can't live without you."
"Yet you're sending me away?" His voice trembled ever so slightly. "That makes no sense."
"Not away! We would still see each other often. I just can't take the chance of losing you. I – I thought you were dead and it was…I didn't want to live, Joseph. I knew I had to survive – for my children, for my country - but had it not been for that, I wouldn't have cared. If you were dead, I would have died too."
Joseph's expression softened. He turned towards her and took her face in his hands. As he rubbed his thumbs across her cheeks, she leaned into his touch. Joseph looked around the room. He could hear the phone on Charlotte's desk ring and then her voice as she spoke to whoever was calling. Steps echoed down the hallway outside the office as people came and went. He thought for a moment, then released her and stepped back, his hands sliding down her arms to cup her elbows. She opened her eyes and looked at him questioningly.
"Come with me," he said somewhat gruffly. "We're not going to talk about this here."
She nodded and brushed the tips of her fingers across her eyelashes, swiping at tears that now threatened to fall. Joseph opened the door and pulled her through it along with him. Charlotte looked up questioningly, whatever she'd been about to say died on her lips as she looked between the stricken faces before her.
"Charlotte, Her Majesty is taking the rest of the day off. She has some, uh, personal issues she needs to resolve."
"I have personal issues? That's hardly fair," Clarisse said exasperatedly, yanking her hand back from his. She had composed herself a bit and she leveled her gaze at Charlotte. "Joseph thinks I'm working myself to death. I hardly believe that qualifies as a 'personal issue'," she threw him an irritated look "but I have agreed to leave my office for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Please notify the staff that I will be…" Her voice trailed off as she realized she had no idea where she would be.
"Spending the afternoon at the lake house – napping and fishing," Joseph filled in smoothly. He gripped her firmly by the elbow and propelled her towards the door.
"Joseph! I don't fish!" she admonished as he swept her out of the office suite.
Charlotte contemplated the retreating couple for a long moment before she picked up the phone and reconnected with the caller she had just put on hold. "I'm sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, but Her Majesty has just left for the day." She listened briefly. "I don't expect her to return until sometime tomorrow, sir. Her Head of Security returned to the palace to find her working herself too hard and has insisted she spend the rest of the day resting and relaxing." Another pause, then she smiled into the phone. "Yes, sir, I believe he was indeed going to accompany her." And then, "I couldn't agree more, sir. I'll have her call you tomorrow." She was still smiling as she hung up the phone and glanced out the window at the lake sparkling in the distance. "Good luck, Joe," she whispered.
Clarisse couldn't still the fluttering in her stomach as Joseph led her down the hall, down the stairs and finally out into the late afternoon sunshine. The golf cart the staffed used to drive between out-buildings on the estate sat parked in its customary space near the side entrance. Joseph handed her into it and waited on her to fasten the seat belt before starting the engine. They made the drive down to the lake in silence. Clarisse kept looking over at her driver, but he kept his eyes steadfastly on the path and never looked her way. From the twitch of the muscles in his jaw, she got the distinct impression that he was upset with her.
Finally they pulled to a stop in front of the small guest house that fronted the clear water of the lake. Still without speaking, he walked to the door and quickly scanned the room inside before motioning Clarisse to enter. She moved past him, aware of their closeness as she passed him in the doorway. She stopped in the middle of the room and turned to look at him. She spread her hands questioningly as he closed the door and turned to face her.
"Now what, Joseph?"
"What do you want, Clarisse? Do you want me to quit my job? Do you want to make me into someone who fits more closely with your status so you won't feel so guilty about your feelings for me? What?"
Clarisse wrapped her arms around herself tightly and tried not to turn away from him. The directness of his questions, not to mention the way his eyes impaled her made her distinctly uneasy. Her natural inclination was to hide behind diplomatic dialogue, but she knew he wouldn't let her. She stared down at the floor for a moment, then pulled her eyes up to meet his. She took a deep breath.
"I meant what I said. I can't face the thought of losing you, Joseph. If something else happened, I know you would do anything to save me, not giving any thought to your own safety. You cannot die for me, Joseph. Please don't leave me in a position to be responsible for that. I thought that you would accept the reward and we could still be together without you being in danger anymore."
Joseph stared at her silently for a few moments. "When was the last time you saw Lady Caroline, Clarisse?"
"Caroline? What does she have to do with this?"
"She's your best friend from school, is she not? And she lives on an estate not ten miles from the palace. Her husband is a Member of Parliament. Her daughter was at college with Pierre. When did you last see her?"
Clarisse ran a hand distractedly through her hair as she frowned in thought. "I don't know. Sometime last year, I think. At the Christmas ball?"
Joseph nodded and crossed the room to stand in front of her. "I don't want to be just your friend. I don't want to be shut out of your life. I care for you. I want to be with you every minute of every day."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he reached out and placed his fingers against her lips. "Don't you think I should get to decide what happens with my life? If I chose to lose it for you, isn't that my right?"
"Please don't leave me, Joseph," she finally managed to whisper.
"Never, Clarisse," he responded as he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.
One simple kiss…
She lost it. There was no other way to describe what happened when they kissed. It was not their first kiss, certainly, but there was some kind of desperate freedom in it this time. He felt the passion coursing through her, passion which he mirrored. As their bodies molded to one another he wrapped her with his arms and lifted her off the ground. He was rewarded by melodious laughter. Buoyed by that reaction, he twirled around then swept her up into his arms and carried her upstairs to the bedroom.
Something clicked in his head and he stopped before laying her down on the bed before them. He looked into her face. "Is this what you want, Clarisse?"
There was no hesitation. She looked deeply into his eyes. "More than anything, Joseph," she replied softly. He kissed her again, and then laid her on the bed. As she watched, he slowly disrobed in front of her. He reveled in her blushes as her eyes traveled his body, drinking in the view.
Her breathing changed as he made his way to the bed. Her heart thudded inside her chest and she pulled more oxygen into her body. She lay back against the pillows as he lowered himself onto the bed, onto her. His lips descended onto hers as he lowered his weight onto her body. She clung tightly to his shoulders, taking the kiss deeper.
Finally, needing to breathe, he pulled back. He lifted himself into a sitting position, straddling her body. Her hands slid down his back to the sides of his thighs. She whimpered softly at the loss of contact.
"Mmmm, your kisses are magnificent, Clarisse, but you're wearing far too many clothes." As he spoke he trailed a finger down the side of her face. His smile widened as his finger reached the top buttons of her blouse. His hands made quick work of them and he pulled the fabric open, exposing her lace covered chest to his view for the first time. "Oh, God, Clarisse," he moaned. His hands made their way over her body and finished pulling her clothing away, freeing her body to more exploration.
Those hands were magical – sometimes trailing so lightly over her skin that it felt like a feather dragging weightlessly across her body and sometimes heavier, probing and massaging, and branding her with his touch. She came alive in his hands and, to his immense delight, she was soon touching and tasting him just as freely as he had her.
This was the woman he knew and loved. Even now, as she lost herself in their shared passion, she remained elegant and intense. Her movements were as smooth and beautiful in bed as they were on the dance floor. Her inhibitions fell away as she relaxed into their lovemaking. Soon Joseph was moaning and squirming as her lips familiarized themselves with the crevices and planes of his chest and neck.
With each movement and shift Clarisse made, the harder he had to fight to maintain any kind of control over himself. She could feel the evidence of his heated arousal. A knowing smile curved her lips as the knowledge of the power she held with him dawned in her awareness. Joseph's need for her was growing to almost uncontrollable levels.
When at long last she took him inside her body he felt sure he would explode into her right then. He tensed and she felt it. She stilled – not moving. The moment passed, he was able to relax somewhat. He opened his eyes and smiled up at her. She looked fully into his eyes, leaned forward slightly and grinned a wicked grin. He thought he knew everything there was to know about her. He'd memorized her every expression. Her eyes revealed her thoughts to him. There were no secrets she could keep from him. But he'd never seen this look before. It was almost frightening.
Clarisse seemed to know the effect she had on him as she slowly licked her lips. She leaned even closer to him, releasing him slightly from his silken prison. He lifted himself on his elbows, arching to meet her lips with his own. She pulled back, keeping the tiniest space between them.
"Are you sure you're ready, love?" she hissed. She began small tight movements atop the head of his shaft. "Really ready?" she asked.
"Shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" he moaned.
"Once we do this, there is no going back." She smiled her wicked smile again and all he could do was throw his head back in groaning protest.
"We're way past the point of ne return, Clarisse. Pl-please!" he stammered as she continued to tease him with the twitching heat that refused to envelop him fully. He groaned loudly and used his arms for leverage to thrust up into her. She anticipated the move and moved with him, not allowing the penetration he sought. He moaned and fell back.
"You're killing me, woman!"
She laughed - a deep, husky sound. It was the sexiest thing he'd ever heard. "You are mine, Joseph. Forever. I will never let you go." With that she seated herself fully on him, eliciting and a sigh of deep appreciation from her lover.
He thrust upward into her and felt her muscles grip him, pulling him even further inside. She rocked her body against his, drawing him in and out, stroking herself deeply with his body. She milked him, used him to pleasure herself and he was lost. He tried to watch her, fascinated by the play of delight across her face with each new thrust. As they moved together, his hands trailed down her body, following the curves, molding to the shape of her hips, her breasts. At last she leaned into his body as she ground her hips against him. The twisting motion drove bolts of electricity through him and he knew he could hold out no longer. Finally he gripped her shoulders, stilling her movement as he made one last hard thrust and crashed through the barrier, emptying himself into her.
When he could open his eyes again, he found her staring down at him. She laughed delightedly at the look on his face as he tried to focus. "Do you love me, Joseph?" she purred.
"My God! I adore you, Clarisse." His voice was thick and slurred.
"Mmmm… I love the sound of that." She ran her fingers down the side of his face. Her gaze softened and she contemplated him tenderly for a long moment. "I love you too, Joseph."
He smiled at her as he reached up and pulled her down to him. Their lips melded as Clarisse stretched her body out along Joseph's. He wrapped his arms around her torso, taking her full weight onto his chest. His shoulder tinged painfully, but he held her tightly.
"I love you, Joseph," she said again, as if surprised by how the words felt leaving her mouth. "I love you, I love you, I love you," she murmured into his chest. Clarisse wasn't sure how long they lay there, bodies spent, gasping for breath. Eventually she slipped off to one side, freeing him from her weight, even as she draped a leg over his hips and burrowed her head into his chest so that they lay together, entwined in each others arms.
"Clarisse." He whispered her name again and again as his lips touched her face, her hair, her neck.
She reached up and took his face in her hands. He could feel the slight trembling in her body as her eyes bored deep into his. Warm brown eyes met deep blue ones as he returned her gaze with an equal intensity. "I can't live without you, Joseph. I can't live without this. I need you – I love you." She sighed. "What are we going to do?"
Joseph didn't speak for a long time. Her simple admission moved him deeply. And how, exactly, were they going to make this work? He couldn't live without more of her, either. Blinking back unwelcome tears that stung his eyes, Joseph directed his gaze out the French doors and over the balcony that opened onto a glorious view of the lake. 'There must be a way,' he thought.
The sun was beginning it's descent across the afternoon sky, changing the angle of the light that struck the placid water. He marveled at the colors reflected on the surface. Clarisse shifted slightly and brushed her lips across his chest. He smiled and pressed a kiss to her hair.
Suddenly he gripped her shoulder tightly and half sat up, drawing a sound of protest from the woman sprawled across his body. "Clarisse! It's time you started painting again!"
"Excuse me?" She lifted her head and looked at him quizzically.
"Painting! Clarisse! That's how we'll make it work!" He grinned at her.
"I have no idea what you are talking about Joseph. I haven't painted in years. What does that have to do with anything?"
Joseph took her face in his hands and pressed an ardent kiss to her lips, then rolled out of bed. He crossed the room and threw open the French doors.
"You've been working too hard, Your Majesty," he said with mock formality. "You need to find a hobby to indulge in as a means of handling your stress. You are going to start painting again and the lake house – with that view and this natural light – is going to make a fabulous studio." He gestured towards the balcony, as excited as a school boy. "Of course, since there are no cameras here, you'll have to have a guard with you."
Clarisse sat up just enough that the remaining bedclothes fell away from her upper body. She leaned back on her elbows, apparently oblivious to Joseph's appreciative stare. Looking past him, she studied the view beyond. Slowly a smiled turned up the corners of her mouth. "You are a genius, my love. Now come back to bed!"
He did just that.
When Clarisse made it back to her office the next day, she had Charlotte schedule a complete checkup with her doctor.
"Are…are you alright, Your Majesty?" Charlotte inquired timidly.
"I'm fine, dear," Clarisse assured her warmly. "I'm just doing this to keep peace with Joseph. He insists that all this stress is getting to me. I agreed to see what the doctor has to say about it."
The doctor didn't realize he'd been manipulated when his patient suggested that perhaps her chronic tiredness and frequent headaches were due to over work. She wondered if some regular time off, spent working on a hobby, might help? He assured it that it would and when he left after their visit, congratulated himself on convincing her that she needed to relax more.
Clarisse finished her first study of the lake-scape almost a year later. Thus began Her Majesty's years long study of the landscape that could be seen from the lake house balcony. She painted it in every season and every light. The paintings weren't masterpieces, but they were generally respectable.
Joseph insisted on framing the paintings and having them hung in the hallway outside her office. Each time she finished a new piece, he would replace the previous painting with the new work; his reasoning being that when he wasn't inside the office watching her in the flesh, he could stand on post in the hallway and enjoy the memories the paintings evoked.
None of the staff seemed curious about the fact that the Queen's landscapes took so long to complete. And everyone had to admit that even though she was inordinately slow as an artist, the process seemed to have worked wonders on her disposition.
When Queen Clarisse finally left the throne in favor of her successor, the curator of the Pyrus museum contacted her and asked for permission to do an exhibit of her paintings. Clarisse laughingly refused, stating that no one could possibly be interested in her less than spectacular work. The curator begged her to reconsider, citing the funds that could be generated for support of the museum for an exhibition such as this.
At first the former Queen demurred again, but then her husband leaned down and whispered into her ear. She immediately ducked her head, and cleared her throat. When she regained her composure, she delighted the curator by agreeing to the exhibition.
The usual crowd of Genovian dignitaries and the press corps turned out for a gala event celebrating the opening of the new exhibit. The former Queen had been married less than a year, and her relationship with her new husband was still the stuff of gossip and speculation amongst the assembled guests. Towards the end of the evening, Clarisse managed to secret herself with Joseph in an alcove, thankful for a few short moments away from prying eyes.
"Let's get out of here, Darling," she whispered, lips grazing his ear.
He drew her close. "My thoughts exactly." He ran a hand down her back, over her hip, then squeezed her thigh. She murmured in appreciation. "What are you going to paint this time?"
She laughed – throaty and sultry. "I'm through with painting for a while, Joseph. It takes too much time away from more pleasant activities." Her fingers toyed with the hair ringing the back of his head.
"Well, everyone needs a hobby," he said, then buried his face in her neck.