§ § § - December 10, 1996

On the tenth of December he got a phone call at work from Anna-Kristina. "Hallå då, Uncle Christian. Just wanted to give you those party dates. It turns out that Lars Andersson and Hjalmar Amundsson will be at the same one—it's a little coming-out fete for Annegretel Ekeblad. And—"

"Coming out?" Christian echoed blankly. "What does that mean?" He had visions of Annegretel Ekeblad, whom he knew of as the teenaged daughter of a wealthy Sundborg stockbroker who handled many famous people's accounts, announcing she was homosexual for the benefit of her party guests.

"Into society, Uncle Christian," Anna-Kristina said patiently. "She went to school with Cecilia. She's eighteen now and this is her big debut."

"Oh," Christian grumbled, disappointed. He'd have been much more impressed if his initial idea had been the correct one. "So when is that one?"

"Friday night," his niece told him, and he pulled up the electronic calendar on his computer and noted the event. "It starts at six, but you can be fashionably late, because you're royalty and the most popular one of us. And then as for Pia Lyngman, she'll be at a party on the eighteenth. It's just a little Christmas party at the Thornblad compound." This family was the owner of the factory that turned out the official jordisk pastry, the jordsklocka, and had been making excellent money from it for decades.

"Make sure you bring a container so you can pack home a few dozen jordsklockor in it," Christian twitted her, and grinned at the snort he heard on the other end. "What time does that one start?"

"Seven. So you don't have to go there straight from work," Anna-Kristina said. "It'll be so good to see you there. Oh, I'd better go, Pappa's looking for me. See you later!"

And so on Friday, December 14, Prince Christian of Lilla Jordsö met his sister-in-law, Queen Kristina, and her two daughters, Princesses Anna-Kristina and Gabriella, as well as his brother Prince Carl Johan, sister-in-law Princess Amalia, sister Princess Anna-Laura, and her daughter Princess Cecilia at the castle to attend the first of two parties. The women were wearing glittery evening gowns in some combination of gold, red, green and silver; at Carl Johan's advice, Christian had donned his white royal dress uniform and added the accessories that usually were worn only at the most formal of royal functions: a gold shoulder-to-waist sash edged in red, which was repeated around the tunic where a belt would be, and gold epaulets on the shoulders. Carl Johan was dressed identically, which made him feel a little less ostentatious.

"We'd better be sure we know where the Christmas tree is when we walk in," Christian observed, deadpan.

"Why?" Cecilia took the bait.

"So we can take our places among the ornaments, of course," he riposted, and smirked at the dirty looks Kristina, his sister and his nieces gave him. Fortunately, Carl Johan and Amalia had senses of humor that more closely resembled his own; but while he was glad for their chuckled appreciation of his quip, he would have made the remark no matter how much disapproval he got from his relatives.

They all enjoyed Hjalmar Amundsson's performance; he played classical folk music from all the Scandinavian countries, though he himself was jordisk and therefore put a little more emphasis on native music. After a break for refreshments, Lars Almberg took the stage and launched right into his somewhat frenetic routine, beginning with the requisite remarks about how he was enjoying his little vacation in Lilla Jordsö and moving into some gentle jokes about the country and the culture. But he had a set routine that was popular with the younger generation who could remember him only, or primarily, as a comic rather than the musician he had started out as; and before long he was in his element, telling all sorts of jokes, mostly at the expense of the Norwegians. "This is humor?" Kristina asked at one point, looking bewildered.

"That's his brand of it, I think," Christian enlightened her. "You know how the Norwegians and Swedes are always telling jokes on each other."

"Be glad it's not us," Amalia said. "I think his humor's slightly abrasive."

"That's just his personality talking," Carl Johan said, shrugging. But he eyed his younger brother curiously under a roar of laughter and asked, "Are you so sure you want to get your Leslie that man's autograph?"

"She knows him," Christian said helplessly. "Or at least she knows who he is. Don't plant doubts in my mind, äldrebror. I've had so much trouble trying to think of a present for Leslie, this has turned out to be my last resort. I need to do this before it's too late."

"Well enough," Carl Johan said with another shrug and settled back in his seat. Christian endured the rest of the comedian's spiel and applauded politely for a moment or two when he was done; then he prodded his brother in the side as the audience dispersed and began to mingle.

"Come with me," he said. "I know you'd like to meet Amundsson at least."

"You have me there," Carl Johan admitted good-naturedly. "Amalia, would you care to come along?"

Hjalmar Amundsson, having never before been presented to his country's royal family, was delighted and thrilled to meet them, and more than willing to sign the autograph Christian requested, without the slightest question. Almberg, however, seemed to be used to running in the circles of society's highest stratum, and trapped the surprised and restless prince in a boisterous, mostly one-sided conversation before at last scribbling his signature on the notepad Christian presented to him and clapping him on the shoulder. "It was really good to meet you, Your Highness," he said, and then peered at him with what Christian considered to be belated concern. "I hope you didn't mind my jokes about Lilla Jordsö."

To his own amused surprise, which he carefully kept hidden, Christian realized he'd forgotten what they were. "No, not at all," he said smoothly. "Well, thank you for the autograph, and it was good to meet you."

"My honor, Your Highness," Almberg said and bowed, as if only just now realizing there was protocol to be observed. "Thank you for being here tonight." Christian only smiled in reply, made an excuse, and then plotted a beeline for the door.

Amalia saw him making his break for it. "Leaving so soon?" she teased.

"Need you ask?" he retorted dryly, and she laughed. "Well, don't tell Kristina and the girls, please—at least not till I'm safely away in the limo." His sister-in-law laughed again and promised, and he succeeded in slipping away, relaxing only when the car was moving along the streets on its way back to the castle, where he'd left his car. He fished the two little slips of paper out of his wallet and examined them in the overhead light, blowing out a small sigh of relief. Two down, one to go. Well, the worst is out of the way; I don't see how the Thornblad party can possibly be as insane as that one.

The following Tuesday, he checked with Kristina, who told him it was a much more formal party this time around, and he should wear a tuxedo. "Really, Christian, you should know these things in advance," she scolded.

"You know me better than that, Kristina," he chided her, though with a smile. "You should probably count your lucky stars that I've even consented to go to these things."

"Probably so," she agreed, relenting. She was well aware that Christian wasn't speaking to Arnulf and hadn't in weeks now, and in all honesty was fully in his corner. "If you like, you can just go directly to the Thornblad compound yourself, so that you don't have to rely on castle transportation to get back when you want to leave."

"Excellent idea, thanks," he said, and proceeded to take her advice.

A valet took his car to be parked, and the Thornblad butler escorted him inside and formally announced his presence. "His Royal Highness, Prince Christian," the man droned.

All eyes turned to him, many of them widening with amazement, and inwardly he smiled wryly. He had once claimed he wasn't an actor, but he was very good at hiding his true emotions, and no one suspected what he was really thinking as he shook hands and gave everyone the same professional, paste-on smile. Some might have noticed the lack of any real warmth in it, but if they commented, they didn't do so to his face. But he could no longer muster up the will to even pretend he was glad to be at these useless functions, not in the wake of what Arnulf had done to him and the perpetual hollow ache of missing Leslie that rode within him all the time.

Then said ache was sharpened considerably when he caught sight of an all-too-familiar face across the room. Damn Briella and Rudolf for not telling me she was going to be here! It was Karin Grimsby, whom he had dated only four years before. Cheer up, prince, he suggested sourly to himself. It could be worse—you might have run into Ingela Vikslund here, after all! Before he could move on, though, Karin turned around and spotted him, and lit up like a searchlight when she recognized him. "Hello, Your Highness!" she exclaimed, curtsying to him.

Christian managed to maintain his smile. "Hello, Karin," he said quietly. He liked Karin just fine, but only as a friend; he thought he could see the glint of something more in her eyes, and decided on the spur of the moment to confide in her if it became necessary, in order to set her straight. "It's good to see you again. How have you been?"

"Very well, thank you," she said. "I'm glad to see you. I hope all is well with you?"

He half-shrugged. "Could be better," he murmured. He glanced around, feeling a little desperate, and finally went straight to the heart of his reason for being here. "Tell me, do you see Pia Lyngman around here anywhere?"

Karin's eyes lost their sparkle, and Christian felt sorry for her, but had no wish to encourage her in any way. "She's talking with some other people across the room," Karin said, polite but audibly subdued. "I didn't know you knew her."

"I don't," Christian said. "I just hoped to get her autograph."

"You did?" Karin said, astonished. "Th-that's all?"

Surprised, he grinned at her despite himself. "That's all. Why do you ask?"

She reddened. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. I just thought…" Karin looked away and shook her head. "I'm only being foolish."

Relenting, Christian reached out and touched her shoulder. "Tell you what, Karin. If you'll do me the favor of helping me get Pia Lyngman's autograph, I'll give you any two dances on your dance card. How does that sound?"

Karin laughed suddenly. "Well, I have to admit, Your Highness, I don't know her either, but I'll do what I can to help. Just follow me."

It turned out that Karin knew one of the people the writer was talking with, and was able to horn into the conversation. Then her companions recognized Christian and bowed or curtsied to him. Pia Lyngman looked astounded and exclaimed, "No one mentioned you would be here, Your Highness. This is a great honor for me."

Christian chuckled. "As a matter of fact, I want to ask you a favor. Would you mind very much giving me your autograph?"

"N-not at all," stammered the writer, and wrote her name on the notepad Christian produced. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Your Highness."

"I'm very appreciative, thank you, Miss Lyngman," Christian replied, smiling. "I can remember reading some of your books to my niece when she was small, and she loved them."

"Oh, thank you, Your Highness." Pia Lyngman blushed and fluttered, and Christian almost laughed at the poor woman's flustered mien. "This will certainly be something to tell my family about. I'm so glad I was able to meet you. Is your wife with you?"

At the question, Karin turned to him, and Christian felt jolted again. Marina just didn't fit the role Arnulf had assigned her in his life. "Uh, no…no, she's visiting my nieces at the moment. They're good friends," he hedged. "I just came to…well, to get your autograph."

"Oh, fate have mercy," Pia Lyngman gasped and stared at him. "Truly?"

What a ridiculous conversation, Christian thought, feeling absurd. "Truly. I thank you for that, and I hope your Christmas is a lovely one."

Fortunately, she took this as the gentle dismissal it was. "Merry Christmas to you too, Your Highness. And thank you again!"

Christian tossed her a last smile and drifted away into the milling crowd, with Karin at his side as though magnetized. He met her question-filled gaze, and the second he did, she pounced. "You really came here just for that autograph?"

Christian sighed, amused. "Karin, please, if I tell you what the story is, can you keep it secret?" She nodded eagerly, and he smiled. "The autograph is a Christmas gift, and I want it to be a complete surprise. This was the only way I could get it in time."

"For Princess Marina?" Karin asked skeptically. "If the press is to be believed, you and she don't care for each other enough to bother with Christmas gifts." Belatedly, at his wide-eyed stare, she tacked on, "Your Highness."

Again he relented; he supposed he must have a soft spot for her after all. "All right. No, it's not for Marina. It's for…someone else. Someone very special to me."

Karin studied him, and he noticed again that the shine had left her eyes. "I see."

He lightly rested a hand between her shoulder blades and guided her over to a somewhat secluded corner. "Karin, I know we had some good times a few years ago, but I'm afraid I don't feel anything more for you than friendship. I do appreciate your tact and your manners. Now I need to ask for your understanding when I tell you that I am in fact in love with a very special woman, someone I can't make a life with just now because of my brother and his machinations. The press is right when they speculate, but I won't talk openly to them—partly because of Arnulf, but mostly because I want to protect her. I don't want her being excoriated in the world media as 'the other woman' in my life. As far as I'm concerned, she's not the 'other' woman, she's the only woman." He studied her intently. "I'm telling you this only because I know you well enough that I believe I can trust you not to sell this to the first reporter you see. Can I?"

Karin seemed to be searching his face, and after a moment she nodded a little. "Yes, you can, Your Highness. Well…whoever she is, I just hope she's worthy of you."

That made him smile. "Oh, she is. I only wish I were as worthy of her. At any rate, thank you, Karin, for everything."

"You're welcome," she said and cleared her throat. "I'll cover for you if you'd like to leave now."

"Leave?" he echoed.

For the first time she cracked a smile. "I know you hate parties. You always have."

Christian laughed softly. "You still know me pretty well after all this time, then? As a matter of fact, it's tempting, but a deal's a deal. I promised you two dances for your help, and I intend to keep my end of the bargain. So come on, let's join those folks out there who are enjoying the music."

He put in the promised two dances with Karin, and even enjoyed them, before taking her up on her offer to "cover for him" and slipping out mostly unnoticed. Neither the butler nor the valet asked any questions of him; it wasn't their place, no matter how curious they might be. They were too professional to be that nosy, and he was grateful for it as he got into his car and headed for home.

Once he got there, he set about packaging up the three autographs for Leslie, and as he was addressing the padded envelope he planned to mail them in, he paused a moment. He had planned to include a card, but somehow that seemed too generic now. Rummaging through a drawer of his computer desk, he finally came up with some Enstads Datoservice letterhead, surveyed it and made a face, and decided it would have to do. He found a pen and began to write.

My darling Leslie Rose, I hope you'll like the enclosed gifts. They're not much, but I went to a certain amount of trouble to get them—perhaps if you're curious, I'll tell you sometime. It's hard to believe it will be Christmas soon; it doesn't feel much like Christmas, any more than it did last year when my father died and my despicable brother took the throne. It would seem much more like Christmas if only I could be with you. You've shown me what it's really like to be in love, and I feel as if I could fly, as long as you're there to encourage me. Keep on being your sweet self, and never forget I love you, with everything in me. Merry Christmas, or as we say here in Lilla Jordsö, God Jula. With all my love, Christian.

He started to fold the note, then hesitated, spying the colored pencils that he used in his design work, and grinned to himself. Why not? Swiftly he sketched a green pine tree, dotted it with a number of small red spirals, and then plucked out a yellow pencil and drew a little star on the top, complete with cartoonish rays of light emanating from it. He printed his initials as small as he could manage under the tree's trunk, then put the pencils away, folded the note and slid it into the envelope. For the first time in several months, he felt lighthearted.

§ § § - December 4, 2006

"You did great," Leslie told him, grinning. "I didn't have those three autographs before, and I'd even heard of two of them. I remember reading some of Pia Lyngman's books as a kid, before I was old enough to really know anything about Lilla Jordsö." She chuckled, then met his amused gaze and added softly, "But I loved the note. I still have it even now."

"I ödets namn! You do not!" Christian exclaimed and burst out laughing. "It was just a silly note, Leslie…I can't believe you kept it!"

"Hey—it was your words, your handwriting, and that cute little Christmas tree you drew," she said, sliding her arms around his waist. "It meant so much to me that you went to all that trouble, and then gave me the note instead of just a card. Of course," she added with a grin, "I didn't realize you had to go through the torture of parties just to get them for me. If I'd known that, I'd have appreciated it that much more."

Christian chuckled. "Particularly putting up with Lars Almberg's crazy personality and Karin Grimsby's wishful thinking. She knew I was married, but not happily, so I guess that counted in her mind as my being free. I think she was devastated when she discovered I was in love with you. I always sensed that her feelings for me were stronger than mine for her, but the fact remains that whatever we had between us, it never really caught fire on my part." He shrugged. "For years I thought something was wrong with me, especially after I ended my relationship with Karin. I honestly thought something in me was deficient."

"Not from where I'm standing," Leslie said, smoothing his hair. "You said at that press conference we ended up giving shortly before Arnulf's death that it was your understanding that she'd found the right man for her and was happily married."

Christian nodded. "Yes, that happened the year after I met you. She was married in 1998, and I remember feeling very glad when I heard about it. Well." He squeezed her, then released her and surveyed the tree. "I think one more string of lights should do it, and then we can get to the fun part—the ornaments."

"Good," Leslie said. "That was always my favorite part."

"We never put up our own," Christian recalled, as if surprised. "The servants always did it for us. It was quite an experience helping you, during our first Christmas together."

Leslie laughed. "That's hard to imagine, not ever getting to decorate your own Christmas tree, royalty or not."

"We lead strange lives," Christian mused, his voice faraway. "So many people think it's glamorous to be a royal, but they have no idea what really happens. Do you suppose those fantasies you and Mr. Roarke grant people who want to experience being royal teach anyone anything? Do you think they change their minds about how wonderful it must be to be a monarch or a prince?"

"I'm sure some do," Leslie said. "But you yourself know that in this day and age, the role of royals is changing and diminishing all the time. Even some ruling royals have gone to work—you're the most famous example of that, but I heard that Prince Edward tried to make a go of a TV production company for a few years."

"He should have gone for something less ambitious," Christian remarked, amused. "I heard about it too." He let the topic die off as he got down on his knees to start winding the lights around the lower branches, and she fed him the string, watching. It gave her an odd sense of pride, wonder and happiness, just watching him move while he did the most mundane things in the world. After a little more than five minutes, he backed out from under the tree and got to his feet, then flicked the switch that the plug on the last string had been inserted into. "Voila!" The tree flared into brilliant, multi-colored life.

"I never get tired of staring at Christmas-tree lights," Leslie said, smiling. "I've always thought there's something magical about them. As if anything on earth could happen if you looked at them long enough."

"Like what?" Christian asked, grinning.

"Oh, I don't know," she said, shrugging a little sheepishly. "Maybe as if you could be wrapped up in a cascade of stars and be transported to anywhere you wanted—maybe some favorite past Christmas, or a day in your life you can't remember but wish you could."

"You have a poet's soul," Christian remarked, drawing her into his arms. "Suppose we start decorating this thing, and by the time our children come back to be mesmerized by the magic you attribute to it, we ourselves can turn our thoughts to such lowly things as what we're going to get Mr. Roarke for Christmas, and whether we'll succeed in convincing my family that spoiling the triplets is not in anyone's best interests, and whether Myeko is going to carry out her plans for a group Christmas party."

"I think we can guarantee that last," Leslie observed with a grin. "Myeko's a born party animal. As for the other two, I wouldn't bet on your family…and the only thing I've ever been able to give Father that seemed appropriate was that silver paperweight he keeps on his desk. And that wasn't even a Christmas gift."

"You mean the one with the rainbow gem set into it? Where did you get that?"

"Mm-hmm. I got it in Santi Arcuros—the year I went to Lilla Jordsö and we didn't meet." They looked at each other and shook their heads, still disgusted at the whole silly thing, and then laughed with resignation. "Okay, well, let's get going here. And by the way, I know we're going to hear it a lot this month, but Merry Christmas, my darling."

"Merry Christmas, my Leslie Rose," Christian said softly and kissed her. "I can hardly wait to see what the new year brings us."

I have some romances planned for 2011…not just get-togethers, but breakups as well. No fair peeking! [smile] There are likely to be quite a few flashback stories as well, thanks to some ideas from Mishee and the fact that there are still a lot of tantalizing episodes out there waiting to be adapted. I wish you all wonderful holidays and the very best for the new year! See you in 2011!