A/N: Happy Halloween! As I begin posting this story, it's close to reaching its conclusion; but I have more than enough material ready to put up a fair portion of this story, so enjoy. One of the ideas herein has its origins as far back as before the dates this story takes place; the racetrack featured in the story is intended to be the one from season 1's "Lady of the Evening / The Racer" which first aired February 25, 1978.
§ § § - October 3, 2006
"So how long are they staying again?" Leslie asked, waiting at the plane dock with Christian on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. Several members of her husband's family were due to arrive on the next charter, for an extended vacation away from Lilla Jordsö's rapidly chilling fall weather.
"They're planning on a month," Christian said, cursorily checking his Rolex, as he'd done several times in the last five minutes. "I suppose after all the weddings and such, they want to have some…I think you call it 'down time'." He squinted impatiently into the sky and shook his dark head. "Is the charter late?"
"You seem anxious," Leslie said, "and no, the charter's right on schedule, according to Father. Are you worried about something, my love?"
He blinked at her a couple of times, then laughed. "I suppose I am a little anxious at that. They're bringing Kristina, and it's her first trip out of the country since Arnulf died. Between her and the baby, it's going to be quite an undertaking." Carl Johan and Amalia were coming, along with Anna-Laura and Esbjörn—for his first trip beyond Scandinavia in untold years—and Rudolf and Louisa with their infant daughter. Roald had wanted to bring Adriana, but by now her pregnancy was too advanced for her to travel so far; the castle doctor had restricted her to trips within Europe only.
"Yeah, I can see what you mean. It's been an eventful year at that," Leslie agreed, thinking back over all the things the royal family had experienced in the last ten months or so. Rudolf and Louisa had been married in the first few minutes of New Year's Day; both Louisa and Adriana had fallen pregnant; Esbjörn had finally escaped from a very long captivity at the hands of a would-be oil heiress who was now in prison; Margareta had come out of the closet and recently wed her girlfriend, Gudrun Johannesson; and Anna-Kristina had just married her second husband, architect Kai Oskarsson, and become stepmother to his two daughters, who loved having three-year-old Natalia as a stepsister. She and Natalia had moved to Kai's suburban-Sundborg home and seemed quite happy there. And of course, there'd been the flurry of scandal about the royal family after the revelation of the plot that had resulted in Esbjörn's supposed assassination and actual kidnapping. Quite a few people had been caught in the fallout, although by now most of the principal players were dead. The only survivors were Esbjörn and the oil heiress, Ingela Vikslund, who had once dated Christian many years before and tried to pinpoint him as the father of her son Kurt.
"Yes," Christian murmured, still peering into the sky. "It was definitely time for some peace and quiet. Damn it, I'm telling you, that charter's late."
Leslie grinned and let him believe it, taking in the soft tropical morning. It was going to be a very interesting vacation, she suspected. She would still be working weekends with Roarke, as usual, but for a while their home life would be disrupted somewhat. After some semi-heated argument among assorted family members, it had finally been decided that Anna-Laura and Esbjörn would stay at Christian and Leslie's house, in the downstairs suite that was part of the addition they had built during Leslie's pregnancy with the triplets; and Kristina, Carl Johan and Amalia would all share a bungalow that had been modified to accommodate people using wheelchairs. Rudolf and Louisa and their baby would be staying at Julie's B&B.
Just as Leslie was checking her own watch, apparently infected by Christian's impatience, they both detected the faintest humming somewhere in the distance, which shortly resolved into the drone of a plane. "Aha!" Christian said with a triumphant grin. "They're finally here. I hope Ingrid's got that suite ready."
"I'm sure she has, my love," Leslie said, patting his shoulder. "I know you're trying to make a good impression on Esbjörn, but Ingrid's never been less than efficient, so quit worrying. She'll even have the triplets' room looking presentable." She was glad to hear the laugh that got from Christian. Just then the charter sailed into view overhead, and they settled their stances, watching it blink in and out from behind trees before sinking too low to see. Not quite ten minutes later, it rounded the bend in the sheltered lagoon where Roarke had taken care to have the plane dock built, and drew in to the landing ramp where the attendants tied it down.
Carl Johan and Amalia emerged first, their weary faces alight with the relief of having the long trip finished at last. They beamed at Christian and Leslie on their way down the ramp, and Amalia threw her hands into the air when she stepped onto the grass. "How wonderful to feel the ground under my feet again!" she said happily.
"You wouldn't enjoy being a bird, then?" Christian kidded, hugging his older brother and then his sister-in-law with a loss of restraint he never showed around anyone outside the family. "Welcome, it's good to see you. How were the flights?"
"Other than long and very boring, they were fine," said Carl Johan. "Amalia and I both thought we had brought enough reading material to alleviate the problem, but even after we swapped books, it still wasn't enough." They all laughed, just as Rudolf stepped out of the hatch and pulled a stroller through after him. "Ah…here comes our newest family man."
"It's hard to believe Rudolf's a father now," Christian remarked, watching his nephew reach in and take the hand of his young wife, just now appearing in the hatchway with a blanket-swathed bundle on one shoulder. "How is he with the baby?"
"Sometimes I'm not sure that's our son," Amalia admitted with a grin, her eyes on the younger couple, like those of the others. "Gerhard has made numerous remarks about that old film about the body-stealers."
"Body-snatchers," Christian said and grinned too. "Good, then, hm?"
"Wonderful," Carl Johan said, shaking his head a little. "Neither he nor Louisa will even hear of the idea of a nanny, as Anna-Laura's done with Lisi. Katarina is going to have the full attention of both her parents."
"And she's likely to grow up chafing under it, unless they let up or have at least one more baby to divide their affections," Christian remarked, grinning. "Does she look like anyone yet?"
"No more than your triplets did at that age," Amalia told him. Rudolf and Louisa came within earshot then, and she shook her head at them. "For fate's sake, you two, put that baby in the stroller. Why else would you have brought it?"
Rudolf gave her an admonishing look. "She just fell asleep, Mother, so we don't want to rock the boat. Hallå då, Uncle Christian…Aunt Leslie." He followed each individual greeting with a hug. "It's good to see you two. What'd you do with my cousins?"
"They're at home with Ingrid," Christian told him. "You'll see them soon enough; I expect Karina and Susanna in particular will be enthralled over Katarina. Well, can we see her, then? You wouldn't even send me a photo to add to the family website."
"Every picture taken of her so far is copyrighted by some journalist, because all the ones that exist have been published in magazines," Louisa said wearily. "Could you do it, Prince Christian? At least that way I won't have some greedy photographer suing me."
"I'll be glad to…and for fate's sake, Louisa, you're part of the family now, so you need not call me 'Prince'. You could do as Liselotta and Daniel and Adriana do, and just call me Christian." He smiled at the still-shy young mother and glanced up the dock, where an attendant was lifting a wheelchair through the hatch. "Ah, here comes Kristina."
"Should Esbjörn really be lifting her that way?" Leslie asked, watching him step out after the wheelchair with Kristina in his arms. Anna-Laura exited in his wake as he settled the dowager queen into her wheelchair.
"He's just fine, Leslie," Carl Johan assured her. "He regularly works out with Roald, and has grown quite proficient in karate. Between that and the good food he's had since he escaped, he's quite recovered his health." They watched Esbjörn wheel Kristina down the ramp, with Anna-Laura walking alongside the chair.
"I wondered if someone would be here to welcome us," Christian's sister called out, beaming as they neared the others. "Oh, it's lovely to be here again. What do you think, Esbjörn? Christian certainly made a wise choice to stay here with Leslie, rather than make her move to Lilla Jordsö and our frigid winters, hm?"
"It's more beautiful than in the photographs we saw," Esbjörn said, stopping the wheelchair at the foot of the ramp and, like Kristina, gazing all around. "The castle secretary was right—we definitely needed to get away, and this is the perfect place for it."
Kristina peered up at her youngest brother-in-law. "You'll have to show me where you and Leslie were married, Christian. I would have come with my girls, but Arnulf said he needed someone else with him since the entire remainder of the family had come here for the wedding. That was one thing I regretted letting him do. What an amazingly beautiful place this is. And I look forward to meeting Mr. Roarke."
"Arnulf should have simply gotten off his a—forgive me, his butt, and come along with everyone else," Christian said, tensing subtly as he still always did whenever someone mentioned his late oldest brother. He glanced at Leslie and grinned, looking just a little sheepish. "I'm sorry, my Rose, you know how I get about Arnulf. Well, everyone, why don't we get you to your accommodations. Anna-Laura, Esbjörn, you can come along with me in our car and I'll take you to our house. Leslie has a rover for the others."
Kristina looked at the rover's open sides with some trepidation. "No doors? Carl Johan, Amalia, I think it's better that I sit in between you two."
"Will there be room for all of us?" Rudolf put in, squinting at it.
Leslie nodded. "If Carl Johan and Amalia don't mind, they can flank Kristina in the middle seat. I put one of the triplets' car seats in the back for Katarina, and Louisa can sit next to her. You could fold up the stroller and put it on the floor back there, and sit up front with me if you like."
Rudolf looked the car over and finally nodded; Leslie saw Carl Johan and Amalia exchange weary, amused looks. "I suppose that should work," their son said. "Come on then, Louisa söta, I'll help you settle Katta in." He took his wife's arm and pushed the stroller along towards the car.
"Herregud," said Christian, astonished. "That sounded judgmental."
Carl Johan rolled his eyes. "That's what we mean, partly, by saying we're not sure it's our son. Everything must pass his rigorous inspections, or it's not good enough for his precious baby girl. Some of the castle staff have grown tired of his exacting standards, and we've been thinking about talking to him."
"For all the good it'd probably do," Christian observed, grinning and taking the handles of Kristina's wheelchair. "He'll get over it. It might take a few months, before Louisa gets fed up, or it might take a few years, when Katarina gets fed up. But someone will eventually, so don't worry."
"You're no help," Amalia told him, making him laugh. "I suppose it's enough we're staying in different places." Their conversations continued along as Christian pushed Kristina's wheelchair and attendants brought luggage to a third waiting vehicle; they assisted with getting Kristina into the car, and Christian waved to his wife when he pulled out with a loaded trunk and Anna-Laura and Esbjörn in the backseat.
Leslie made a quick call to Julie at the B&B, advising her that Rudolf, Louisa and Katarina were here and would arrive there in a few more minutes. "Don't worry," Julie assured her, "their room's all ready to go. Rogan even found Rory's crib in the attic and set it up for them, so they've got nothing to worry about."
"Great, thanks, Julie," Leslie said. Just about then one of the attendants wheeled Kristina's chair to the jeep to add it to the other things the royal family had brought with them, and Carl Johan and Amalia climbed in on either side of the dowager queen, while Rudolf fussed in the back with the straps in Katarina's car seat. "Gotta go, we're almost ready. See you in a few."
"Rudolf," Louisa's exhausted-sounding voice finally said, "please. Katta's fine, really. Go sit up front with your aunt and let's get going, so we can get settled in our room and you can stop worrying about whether anyone here besides you knows how to take care of a baby. You're driving me nuts and you're going to wake up Katta."
Kristina burst into giggles, and Carl Johan and Amalia both praised Louisa lavishly—out of pure relief, Leslie suspected, grinning—for finally telling Rudolf where to get off. As for Rudolf himself, he looked disgruntled, shaking his head and stalking around to the front to slide in beside Leslie. "No one appreciates me," he grumbled.
"It has nothing to do with appreciation, Rudolf Harald Reinhold," Amalia scolded. "It has to do with everyone being thoroughly sick of your autocratic tendencies when it comes to that daughter of yours. I sometimes think that if you were equipped for it, you'd nurse her yourself and tell poor Louisa to go find something else to do."
"I just don't want anything happening to her!" Rudolf said, annoyed, twisting in his seat to glare at his mother while Leslie sent the car forward. "She's my daughter, Mother. I've waited thirty years to become a father, and so help me, I'm not going to let anyone harm the smallest hair on her."
"Babies are tougher than they look, even when they're as young as Katarina," Leslie put in, daring to add her two cents. "She's not that fragile, Rudolf. I suppose I could understand your attitude about anyone else messing with her, if I felt like giving you that big a margin for error. But from what Louisa said, I've got a funny feeling you don't even trust her to take proper care of the baby."
Rudolf stared at her, his mouth open and his face reddening, while his parents and aunt hooted gleefully from behind them. "You've pegged it, Leslie," Carl Johan said.
"Louisa?" Kristina said, speaking in an odd mixture of jordiska and English, heavy on the former. "What do you think?"
"Thank you, Aunt Leslie," Louisa called wearily from the back, and Rudolf groaned and slumped in his seat, scowling while the older adults howled again. Leslie, snickering to herself, just kept driving, deciding it might be a good idea to give Rudolf a break and go to the B&B first.
A little less than half an hour later, she was back at the main house; she got there at the same time Christian pulled in with Esbjörn and Anna-Laura. "Thought you were taking them home," she said curiously when the three got out.
"I did," Christian said. "We just dropped off their luggage and they changed into more comfortable clothes. We thought we'd come back and enjoy lunch here with Mr. Roarke. Esbjörn hasn't met him, remember."
"That's true," Leslie conceded. "Well, I'm sure Mariki's putting out refreshments, if you're interested after all that flying. Come on in."
"That sounds wonderful," Anna-Laura said, perking up. "We had a scanty breakfast in Honolulu, and of course they don't feed you on the charter. Do you know what might be on the lunch menu?"
"Probably something light," Leslie mused, leading the others in. Roarke was at the desk, staring at a letter, but looked up when they came in. "Hi, Father."
Roarke dropped the letter and immediately stood up, bowing to Esbjörn and Anna-Laura, who dismissed the formality and shook hands. "Welcome to my island," Roarke said, smiling. "Are your accommodations satisfactory?"
Anna-Laura laughed. "Well, since we're staying at Christian and Leslie's house, I find them quite satisfactory. Christian occasionally dabbled in drawing rudimentary house plans in his younger years, but I never realized he had any knack for it till he designed that house and had it built. I'd forgotten how comfortable that suite is—the last time I saw it was before the triplets were born." She smiled then. "I want to present to you my husband, Esbjörn Lagnebring. Esbjörn, this is Leslie's father, Mr. Roarke."
"How do you do, Your Highness," Roarke said, bowing slightly once more.
"Much better now, thank you, Mr. Roarke," Esbjörn said with a broad grin. "I've been relearning how all my old favorite foods taste, enjoying the simple act of going outside to breathe in the fresh air, reading all sorts of good books, studying martial arts with my son…I can't begin to list all the things I missed during my captivity that I've taken up again."
"Oh fate, fresh air," groaned Anna-Laura. "The temperatures could have been hot enough to bake a cake or cold enough to freeze a martini, and he'd still go outside just to take long, deep breaths."
Roarke chuckled. "As a matter of fact, I can understand his point entirely, Your Highness," he remarked. "After spending so much of his life in one room, I must say I can't blame your husband at all for reveling in everything life has to offer, even its extremes. Please, sit down. My cook is preparing enough food for lunch to accommodate everyone in the family, so we need only invite them to come and take part."
"I'll handle that," Christian offered and picked up the phone while Esbjörn, Anna-Laura, Roarke and Leslie settled down around the tea table near the steps. Esbjörn was gazing around the room as they sat, and looked on with interest when Mariki came in with a tray and set it on the table, pouring tea for everyone except Christian and Leslie, who preferred her nonalcoholic sangria.
"You have impeccable taste, Mr. Roarke," Esbjörn commented when he'd taken a sip of the tea. "In everything, it seems—tea, décor, manners, even offspring." Leslie turned red and everyone laughed.
"That's only because he raised me very well," Leslie said, watching Christian come back over to join them. "Are they coming, my love?"
"They're on their way," he said, sitting beside her. "Well, I suspect once you've all eaten and had a chance to just relax, you're going to find yourselves overcome by jet lag, and we won't hear from you for a few days." He grinned at his sister's dirty look. "It's not a jibe, Anna-Laura. You're on the opposite side of the planet from home, so it's going to take a good while to adjust."
"And that's okay," Leslie added. "Father and I are going about business as usual while you're all here, so if you want to lie low for a few days, go ahead. The staff can take care of anything you need. It's your vacation, so enjoy it any way you want."
"As long as it's legal," Christian tossed in, making Esbjörn burst into laughter and getting a sharp look from Anna-Laura. He grinned unrepentantly. "Don't tell me you forgot how much I enjoy teasing you. Still want to stay with us, äldresyster?"
"Keep it up, ungstebror, and I'll get my revenge," Anna-Laura threatened, mostly good-naturedly. "Don't mind us, Mr. Roarke, Christian has been like this ever since he could talk, and the two of us are just tired and looking forward to several days of complete peace and quiet. After that we may decide to take advantage of some of the attractions."
"Peace and quiet?" Christian repeated. "You really picked the wrong place to stay, in that case. You seem to have forgotten we have three two-year-olds."
"That's different," Anna-Laura retorted. "Children make things interesting."
"That's one way to put it," Leslie remarked, setting off Christian and Esbjörn again. "Okay, I guess that's enough teasing. If you'll all excuse me for a couple of minutes, I'll go see how lunch is progressing."
Lunch, in fact, was quite lively; the triplets were with them for this one, since Christian had brought them back along with his sister and brother-in-law, and they had been playing quietly in the upstairs spare room. Even Kristina remarked on how well-behaved they were, particularly for two-year-olds, and Louisa said that she hoped her own baby would be equally good. "Not if she gets spoiled by Rudolf," was Kristina's comment.
"Oh, you still won't let up on me, will you," grunted Rudolf, who had made a rather grand point of setting a baby carrier containing the two-month-old princess on a small table directly beside his chair. "When all I want is to protect my daughter."
"Smother her is more like it," Kristina said tartly, as usual having her say in her native tongue. Christian leaned over now and then and gave Roarke a succinct whispered translation as she carried on. "For fate's sake, Rudolf, you won't even let the child's own mother have her when she isn't feeding her."
"Herregud, Aunt Kristina, it's only to give Louisa some rest," Rudolf said, rolling his eyes with exasperation. "She never gets a full night's sleep these days, and I want to do my part in taking care of my child."
Christian cleared his throat. "Rudolf," he said, "I wonder if you realize how possessive you sound. Katarina is Louisa's baby too, or have you forgotten?"
"Of course not," Rudolf said, giving him a narrow-eyed look. "Why?"
"Because of the way you refer to her as your child all the time," Christian said, raising a brow and making Rudolf stare at him. "As I recall, you weren't the pregnant one; you're not the one who gave birth, and you're not the one lactating." He and Leslie had learned very early on that Louisa planned to breast-feed the baby. "When Katarina cries to be fed, do you check her over for every other possibility first before handing her over to Louisa?"
Roarke had to stifle a smile; Leslie swallowed back a giggle at the flabbergasted look on Rudolf's face. But the rest of the family exercised no such restraint; they were grinning at him without the slightest shame. "Trust Christian to pin you to the wall with the most pertinent questions," Carl Johan observed cheerfully. "This is what we've been trying to tell you for the last six or seven weeks, Rudolf. It's wonderful that you love your daughter so much; it'll make you a very good father. But there's a fine line between 'doting' and 'smothering'. We're merely trying to tell you to be careful not to cross it."
"Has he planted one single thing at all the entire spring and summer?" Leslie couldn't help asking, and at that the whole family broke down, including Louisa. Rudolf groaned out loud and covered his face with his hands. Even the triplets were giggling energetically, as if they understood what was going on. It was possible they did get some of it, Leslie thought, glancing fondly at her children.
Louisa patted Rudolf's shoulder and said, "As a matter of fact, he hasn't! He was too busy worrying about me while I was pregnant, and then worrying about Katarina when she was born. Sometimes I feel more like the wet nurse than the mother, and I'm pretty sure wet nurses went out with the nineteenth century, or at least the early twentieth. If I'm not feeding Katta, Rudolf's got her. All his outside activities have fallen completely by the wayside since winter ended. I barely get to hold my own child and I never get to play with her. She's going to be strictly Daddy's girl if he keeps it up, and I'll be a nobody to her."
"Except a food source," noted Carl Johan sympathetically. "Well, Rudolf, your wife's spoken. I daresay it's time you stopped obsessing over the baby and got back to some of your usual pursuits. I have little doubt that tree-planting group of yours has missed you greatly, and we've had calls all summer long about whether you're available for beautification projects. I think Leslie might tell you to, uh, get a life."
Anna-Laura seemed to take some pity finally. "Oh, now, let up on the man. He can't help it if he's showing just how new a father he is. Pretty soon he'll get used to it."
"I just want to know one thing," Christian said, playfully using his fork to point at Rudolf. "Who changes the diapers?" At the laughter that brought on, they finally agreed to change the subject, which drifted on to whatever the family thought they might do, or not do, while they were vacationing.
But there had been something on Leslie's mind all the while, and it wasn't till after the family had retreated to their assorted accommodations and Christian had taken his sister, brother-in-law, and the triplets back home to the Enclave for the afternoon that she had the chance to ask. "What was that letter you were reading when we came in?" she asked Roarke, noticing the sheet of paper and the envelope still lying on the desk.
Roarke frowned at the letter, picking it up, glancing over it and then folding it. "It's a fantasy request," he said a little heavily after a moment. "Nothing for you to worry about at the moment. I haven't decided yet whether to grant it." He slipped the letter into its envelope, then smiled faintly at her. "But if I do, believe me, child, you'll be the first to know."