A/N: If I don't post during December, just blame the holiday madness. [grin] In the meantime, here is one of the easiest stories I've ever done (and enjoyable too). As always, feedback is greatly appreciated!
§ § § - November 15, 2006
"You've just never gotten over it, have you?"
Christian would have died before he told Leslie this, but her question had been echoing through his brain ever since she'd unthinkingly thrown it out there the month before, during an argument. The real shame of it, he kept thinking, was that she was right. He might have admitted as much, and she might have apologized and he forgiven her for saying it; but that didn't keep it from plaguing him.
He didn't really know whom to talk to. He might have discussed it with his mother had she been alive; but in her absence, he felt a void. He just couldn't bring himself to talk to Leslie about it; she might understand, but she still hadn't been there to witness his travails at his father's hand. Anna-Laura was very much out of the question, after the enormous shouting match he'd had with her over the subject. As to Carl Johan, in a way he was the "overlooked" son: he hadn't been their father's favorite, but he hadn't been the man's scapegoat either. Christian pondered it, sitting in his office that Wednesday afternoon; he still had the opportunity, since Carl Johan and Amalia had decided to stay on indefinitely after the rest of the family had returned to Lilla Jordsö.
Yes…maybe his brother, as the closest thing he knew of to a neutral party, might well be the ideal person to talk to about the whole thing. He shifted in his chair, propping his chin on his fist and nodding to himself. He picked up the phone beside his monitor and tapped out the three digits assigned to the bungalow Carl Johan and Amalia were using.
"Yes?" his brother's voice asked.
Christian deliberately used his native language. "Hallå då, äldrebror. Are you busy?"
"Not at the moment. Amalia's decided to treat herself at the spa, and I'm trying to keep myself occupied. I thought you had to work today."
"Ah, it's slow," Christian said dismissively. "How about I come over there…I need to talk to you about something."
"By all means," his brother agreed. "I'll be waiting."
"See you in a few moments," said Christian and hung up. He glanced around the room; only Taro and Julianne were there, and he let them know he was leaving and departed the office without so much as a backward glance. He had the car, but he bypassed it, needing the walk to the bungalows in order to think.
Carl Johan peered oddly at him when he let him in. "Looks as if whatever you need to talk about is pretty serious," he said. "Sit down…drink?"
"I suppose I could use one," Christian said through a sigh. "Just whatever's there, I don't care." He settled into a comfortable armchair and rested his head on the back of it, staring at the ceiling and listening to Carl Johan putting a couple of mixed drinks together. He lifted his head only when his brother returned and handed him a glass, and after a few minutes Christian blew out a breath, staring at the ice cubes in the glass.
"Well, what is it?" Carl Johan prompted.
Christian looked up. "Did Anna-Laura fill you in about the enormous argument we had last month? The one the morning after a fight Leslie and I had?"
"Oh yes, that one," chuckled Carl Johan. "It must have been quite the fight, if it's still on your mind a month later."
"It's not the fight itself, it's what Leslie said that started everything. That I never got over what Father and Arnulf did to me. We made up, of course, but somehow her words have never left my head. They've been driving me crazy ever since." He leaned forward, feeling desperate. "What am I supposed to do? I'll never be able to resolve my bitterness over this. I can't—Arnulf and Father are both dead. In essence, it means they got away with all the things they did, not just to me but to Anna-Laura and Esbjörn, and all the rest of us in sundry small ways. I keep wishing for the chance to square things, for the opportunity to have them sitting before me, tied to chairs and gagged preferably—" he barely cracked a smile when Carl Johan laughed— "and make them listen while I give them all the grief they earned from me over the years. But I can't. They're dead. I have no way to purge the anger and the grief and the bitterness. What can I do?"
Carl Johan thought this over for a moment, then raised an eyebrow. "Have you thought of asking Mr. Roarke?"
"You must be joking. I can't even talk to Leslie about this; what makes you think I could confide in Mr. Roarke? Ah, it's no use." Christian let his head fall against the back of the chair again. "There's nothing I can do about it, nothing at all. Why in fate's name can't I just resign myself?"
"You can't talk to Leslie about this? I ödet's namn, Christian, that's serious."
"I know, but I don't want to upset her. Those are her words bouncing around my head. If she knew that, she'd feel guilty, and I don't want that to happen to her."
"Well, I certainly can't do anything about it," Carl Johan pointed out. "I still think you should talk to Mr. Roarke. If anyone could provide a solution of any sort, he'd be the one. You're selling him short if you don't."
"Oh, for fate's sake, Carl Johan, he'd merely tell me I must find my own way to make peace with the problem. Whatever Mr. Roarke's abilities may be, there are certain things he won't do. He'd say it's the easy way out, that most people wouldn't have the option to come to him and ask him to do something beyond what ordinary mortals would be capable of doing." He blew out a long sigh. "Other people learn to live with it in one way or another. I'll just have to do the same." He looked at his drink, then gulped down half of it in one rapid series of swallows while Carl Johan looked at him with a sense of alarm. "I'm sorry I wasted your time, äldrebror. I may as well go home and let Ingrid do something other than babysit my children." He drained the rest of his glass and got to his feet.
"You'd better have someone drive you home," Carl Johan warned him. "You don't drink that much, and I'm sure your sensitivity has risen."
"It's only one drink. Or did you make it stronger than I thought?" Christian twitted him gently. His brother grimaced, and he grinned wryly. "Thanks for your time."
He climbed into the car once he'd walked back to his office, and headed for home, west along the north branch of the Ring Road. He allowed his troubled mind to wander as he drove, barely even registering when he turned down the Old Swamp Road shortcut and driving entirely by rote thereafter. So it was a complete shock when he turned onto the southern branch of the Ring Road and collided at five miles an hour, head-on, with the island's one and only postal truck.
Stunned, Christian sat there and stared wide-eyed at nothing; then he blinked and muttered a couple of self-deprecating curses before getting out of the car. The postal carrier got out as well, gasping aloud when he recognized Christian. "Your Highness!"
"It was my fault," Christian said instantly. "I let my mind get away from me and didn't bother to watch what I was doing. How bad is the damage to the truck?"
They inspected both vehicles; the truck's front grille had been stove in, and the front of the Enstads' car was pushed back just far enough that Christian could see the headlights were now out of alignment and the hood was slightly bent. Both engines were still running, however, which was a relief to both drivers. "When you get back to the post office, tell them what happened, and have them call me if they need corroboration," Christian said. "As I said, it was my fault. I hope you were close to finishing your duties for the day."
"Just came out of the Enclave and was about to head back to the post office," said the man, ruefully surveying the postal truck. "Thanks, Your Highness."
Christian shook his head, half wanting to laugh. "You're thanking me for this debacle?" he asked incredulously, and the postman snickered. "Have a safe trip back. You should, anyway, now that I'll be off the road shortly." They shook hands, and a minute later had gone their separate ways, Christian now driving much more slowly and keeping a far sharper eye on the road and his surroundings. He knew he was being overly cautious, but he was mortified by his ridiculous little accident, and wondered morosely what Leslie would say when she found out.
She didn't come home till almost five-thirty, and when she did, she had a funny look on her face. "What happened to the car?" she asked.
Christian groaned inwardly, shut off the television and explained it to her. Leslie listened quietly, then sighed, smiled a little and sat down next to him. "What in the world made you start woolgathering like that?" she asked.
He gave her a furtive look and made a face. "I've had something on my mind and had just finished talking to Carl Johan about it. Not that there's anything that can really be done about it. And no," he said quickly when she opened her mouth, "don't bother asking. It's nothing to do with you, my Rose. It's my problem, and I need to deal with it myself."
"You know it's supposed to help if you talk about it, my love," Leslie reminded him. "Just because you think nothing can be done about it, doesn't mean somebody else doesn't have any ideas." She took in the skeptical look on his face and ventured, "Even if you don't want to tell me about it, you could still talk to Father."
"Ach, you and my brother," he said, chuckling once. "No, my darling, even your father can't do anything about this. If he could, I doubt he would. No matter what fantasies he may grant, there are some things that perhaps he can do, but refuses to, and this would fall under that category. Please, let it rest. I need your help deciding where we'll take the car for repairs, and finding out how much it's going to cost us."
Leslie snorted. "Oh, that's nothing. We can just take it to the garage that maintains Father's fleet. And you know we can afford the cost of repairs." She hesitated then and frowned slightly, reconsidering this. "Wait a minute, does it still run?"
"Yes, of course it does," he said. "I drove it back here, after all."
"Oh yeah. Well, then, we don't have to worry about getting it over there. Christian, why do you look like that?"
"Weren't you listening when I said it was my fault?" he asked, his voice taking on a crisp edge of impatience. "We'll be liable for repairs to the postal truck as well, not just our car. It's going to set us back a fair amount. Damn." He slapped a palm onto the sofa cushion beside him, making her flinch. "Nothing's gone right for a month. I'm sorry, Leslie, I'm afraid I'm very bad company right now. Leave the car problem till tomorrow, will you? I'm going to try to do some computer work." Without waiting for her acknowledgement, he pushed himself off the sofa and strode across the room and upstairs.
She stared after him, wondering uneasily what was going on. She'd noticed that he'd been vaguely troubled by something for several weeks now, but on the few occasions she'd tried to talk to him about it, he had dismissed it and changed the subject. He won't talk to me, he won't talk to Father…what's so terrible that he thinks we can't help him? She stiffened where she sat, frowning. Wait a minute here…he said he had talked to Carl Johan about it. Maybe I can get some more information from him. She got up and went to the kitchen phone, punching out the number of the bungalow where her brother-in-law and his wife were staying.
"Oh, Leslie," said Carl Johan, sounding peculiarly uneasy, when she identified herself. "Well, yes, Christian did talk to me a little, earlier on. He's…he's been bothered by some things that he and Anna-Laura talked about." She thought he sounded tentative, as if he were carefully choosing his words. "I told him perhaps he should speak to you or Mr. Roarke about it…"
"And he won't," Leslie filled in, "right?"
"He says there's nothing any of us can do about it. In fact, he's convinced Mr. Roarke won't, even if he can." There was a moment's pause. "Has something happened, Leslie?"
"Well, he had a little accident on the way home. He collided with the island postal truck. The damage isn't that bad, but he knew it was his fault and it upset him. Please, Carl Johan, what's bothering him so much?"
This time the pause was so long that Leslie felt her stomach start to roll with alarm. Finally he said slowly, "He said he dared not talk to you about it…for his own reasons."
"He did?" she asked numbly. What was he afraid she would do to him?
"Please, don't take it the wrong way. I just don't feel it right to betray his confidence," Carl Johan said hastily. "I hope you understand."
"I think so," Leslie said softly, feeling hurt. "Well, okay, I'm sorry to bother you."
"No, it's no bother. I just hope you can convince Christian to talk to you. Let us know, will you?"
She promised to keep him informed, then hung up with a sense of foreboding. This thing, whatever it is, is eating him alive, she thought, gazing unseeingly at the wall. It has to be, when he had this accident, and as far as I know it's the first one he's ever had. What'll it take to get him to open up and do something about it?
‡ ‡ ‡
Neither Leslie nor Christian knew it just then, but already forces were in motion that would set off an incredible chain of events. At the main house, Roarke sensed something odd in the air; he couldn't have described what it was, not even to himself, for it was so subtle he almost wasn't sure he felt it at all. But he knew as surely as it snows in Siberia that something very significant was about to happen.