Joseph watched Clarisse subtly wipe her brow with a lace handkerchief and frowned. This was the fourth time she'd repeated the action and it worried him.
Something was wrong.
Studying her face, he saw the fine sheen of perspiration and the flushed tone of her skin. Why hadn't he noticed that before?
Clearing his throat, he narrowed his eyes when she looked at him. "Call for a break," he mouthed then scowled when she shook her head slightly. "Now," he mouthed back, giving her the look he knew she hated. He wasn't one for bossing his Queen around, but it was clear she was sick.
Narrowing her eyes, Clarisse pursed her lips. Who was he to be bossing her around and giving her that look? Oh how she hated that look. He'd used it on her only a few times in all the years he'd been her personal guard, each time with good reason, but it still irritated her.
"No," she mouthed back and then returned her attention to the meeting.
"Yes, I hear what you are saying, Minister Soleck, but please understand that my country cannot allow that." Clarisse spoke with the authority of her station. As the reigning monarch of Genovia, she had the most power of all the occupants in the room, and all but one of them were respectful without resentment.
"Of course your country can't allow that," the Angorian minister snarled.
"Oh for heaven's sake!" Minister Willant hissed. "Do you always have to show how truly childish you are, Cornwall?"
Clarisse started to speak but winced instead. The burn in her throat had increased. Reaching for the water glass sitting nearby, she sipped the cool liquid and quickly realized her mistake when she began to cough.
"Your Majesty!" Joseph shouted when she bent forward. Moving from the shadows he knelt beside her. Reaching out to touch her forehead, he was stunned by the heat that radiated from her. "She's burning up. You gentlemen will have to continue this on your own. My Queen's health is more important that your petty arguments," he directed his words at Massram Cornwall.
Minister Willant coughed to cover up a snicker then turned serious. "The meeting is adjourned for the evening. We can't go on without Her Majesty."
"My personal physician is in the hotel, Mr. Martinez, should you need someone." Minister Tidswell spoke up from the other end of the conference table.
Joseph nodded at the man then turned his attention back to Clarisse. "I'm going to carry you out of here, Your Majesty," he informed her in a voice that brooked no argument. He knew by the way she stared at him dully that she was sicker than he'd thought. Any other time she would have vehemently refused. Gently he lifted her in his arms and carried his precious burden out the back entrance to the private elevator leading up to her penthouse suite.
"Joseph," she managed a hoarse whisper.
"Shh. Don't try to talk. You're sick. I told you to end the meeting," he gently scolded.
Even as sick as she was, she glared at him before letting her head fall against his shoulder. She hated when he was right and she hated it even more when he pointed it out to her.
"She has an extremely high fever, Mr. Martinez. I've given her something that should bring the fever down and help with the sore throat and coughing. If the fever doesn't come down we'll have to take her to the nearest hospital."
Joe rolled his eyes with a sigh. "Oh, that will go over well," he mumbled. "Is there anything I can do?"
"I've instructed her lady's maid to bathe the Queen's face and neck with a cool damp cloth."
"What's wrong with Her Majesty?"
"I believe it's an upper respiratory infection, Mr. Martinez. There's some noise in her lungs that I don't like, but it could just be congestion. If the drug brings the fever down, then the noise is nothing to worry about." The older man sighed. "I mentioned the hospital and got a very stern look," he chuckled. "Even as sick as she is, she's still quite a formidable woman."
Joe chuckled with the man. "Yes, she is. Thank you, Doctor."
"I'll return later this evening to check on her. You have my room number should something happen before then."
Joe nodded and watched as the man quietly left the room. Rubbing a hand over his face, he turned and made his way into Clarisse's bedroom. "Why don't you go get some rest, Olivia. I'll stay with the Queen. I have a feeling it's going to be a long night."
"Are you sure, Sir?" Olivia questioned, her voice a bit shaky as she gently bathed her queen's face and neck.
"I'm sure. I'll take first watch. You can take over after the doctor visits again if it's necessary."
Olivia nodded and handed the wet cloth to Joseph as he rolled up his sleeves. "I'm scared, Joe," she whispered.
Pausing with his hands just above the water, Joe reached out and touched her arm. "She'll be fine, Olivia," he assured her with a smile.
Nodding, she took one last look at the flushed face of her queen then turned and left the room. "I'll see you in a few hours, Joe. I'll bring something for you to eat when I come back."
"Thank you, Olivia. Rest well," he called to her, his hands already busy bathing his queen's face and neck with the cool cloth.
"Damn foolish woman. Why must even your health come after duty? What good does it do if you're so sick you can't perform that duty?" he asked her, exasperation in his voice.
Clarisse moaned, her eyes opening to reveal a feverish glassy blue as she stared at him. "Jose…" she started then coughed.
"Easy, Clarisse. Don't try to talk. You'll hurt your throat."
Frowning as she laid back against her pillows, she mouthed, "Already hurts."
"Mouthy even when you can't talk," he quipped. "The shot the doctor gave you should be kicking in. He said it should lower your fever."
"Throat?" she mouthed the question.
"Whatever the doctor gave you is supposed to help with that and the coughing as well."
Nodding, she sighed when the damp cloth smoothed over her forehead. "Olivia?"
"She's resting. Something you should be doing," he scolded gently.
Wrinkling her nose at him, she coughed, tears rolling down her cheeks from the burn in her throat. Turning away from him, she closed her eyes, ashamed of herself for being so weak.
Dabbing the cool cloth across her forehead, he gently turned her face to where she was facing him once again. "Don't do that. You know that I won't think less of you. I'm sure your throat hurts, and I know by looking into your eyes, that you're miserable. Shedding a few tears isn't weakness, it's a sign that you're tired. Rest now. I'll be right here."
Reaching out and squeezing his hand, she smiled tiredly. "Story?" she mouthed, earning her a smile.
"Which story would you like to hear?" Joseph asked, amazed that she'd remembered. It had been so many years ago, and she had been near delirious with fever, that he hadn't expected her to remember the stories he'd sat and told her as they waited for the fever to break.
Closing her eyes, she pointed at him then at herself, knowing that he would understand the meaning.
"Oh, that one, huh? I think you like that story because you like to hear how beautiful you are," he teased as he gently touched her brow, sighing with relief. Her fever wasn't gone yet, but had lowered considerably.
"Joseph," she rasped and squeezed his hand, smiling at the way he jerked from sleep.
"Clarisse," he whispered as he pressed his free hand to her forehead. "You're awake and talking a little. The doctor will be happy. I'm happy." He smiled at her. "I'm sorry that I dozed off. I guess I was just so relieved when you're fever broke, I let exhaustion take over."
"Is okay," she whispered. "Drink?"
He smiled at the way she slurred her words and nodded at her. "I'll be right back with some water."
"Thank you," she managed but swallowed slowly afterward.
"Don't talk too much. Your throat is probably still a little too sore to be using your voice. Are you hungry?"
Nodding, she let him know that she was indeed hungry.
"I'll send for some broth then. Chicken? Of would you prefer beef?" he asked and couldn't help but laugh at the way she snarled her nose. "Oh that's right, Her Majesty doesn't like beef broth."
Sticking her tongue out at him, she rolled her eyes. "Funny," she mouthed.
"I'm glad to see your sense of humor has returned. I'll be right back. Rest while I'm gone."
"Yes, Sir," she barely muttered.
"I heard that." Joseph told her as he stepped into the outer room, shaking his head and sighing in relief. He'd been frightened, hating when she got sick because there was nothing he could do to protect her from it.
Sipping at the warm broth Joseph held up to her mouth, Clarisse wrinkled her nose. "I hate broth," she mumbled softly.
Joseph couldn't help but chuckle. "I know it would taste better if there were vegetables and pasta, but I thought this would be easier for you to swallow. So did the doctor."
She sighed and leaned her head back against the pillows propping her up. "Sorry for whining," she whispered.
"You weren't whining, just merely stating a fact I already knew." He winked at her and held up another spoonful. "Just this spoonful and one more then you're done."
Snarling her nose, she sipped the liquid from the spoon. "I feel so sticky," she sighed.
"It's no wonder. You were burning up with fever. Would you like me to draw you a bath?"
"Olivia," she started but was interrupted.
"Olivia can do that, I know." Joseph set the empty bowl down on the room service cart. "But Olivia isn't here, I am, and I am quite capable of running warm water into a tub."
Smiling as she reached out to squeeze his hand, she let her gaze linger on his face. "You're too good to me."
"It's my job," he answered with a look that let her know it was more than that.
Laying her head back, she conceded. "I'll trust you to get the temperature just right."
"I believe I can accomplish that feat," he laughed as he made his way to the bathroom.
Clarisse smiled as she listened to the sounds he was making in the next room. She heard him mutter and chuckled, wondering just exactly what he'd done to cause such grumbling. The water started running and she frowned, pondering just exactly how she was going to get from the bed to the bathtub when she could barely hold her head up.
"I'll carry you, of course," his warm voice called out.
Shaking her head, she couldn't help but feel a little unnerved at the way he could somehow read her thoughts. She supposed it had a lot to do with the fact that they'd known each other for over forty years and he simply went by reactions she'd had to situations in the past. She shook her head. It was more than that, and she knew it.
"Are you ready, Clarisse?" Joseph asked, startling her from her thoughts.
Looking up at him, she rested a hand over her heart. "Startled me," she frowned at him.
"I'm sorry, but I was not the one lost in their wandering thoughts," he informed her with amusement coloring his words.
"Oh," she huffed as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
"You know, I kind of like carrying you like this. It's not often that you're willing to let me." He deposited her on the padded bench across from the bathtub.
"Umm," she mumbled.
"Yes?" Joseph asked, already knowing what she was going to say.
"I don't know how," she stopped and stared up at him helplessly.
"I'm going to help you."
Her eyes grew wide. "Joseph," she breathed.
"I promise I won't look until you are safely under the cover of the rose scented bubbles."
Chewing on her lip, she studied him, knowing that he was an honorable man, but still uncertain. "What if," she began.
"I'll lock the door," he answered her unspoken question. "I can go and wake Olivia if you want me to, Your Majesty."
Looking down at her hands, she fidgeted a minute before looking up at him, her eyes holding his. "No. You."
"Mmm," she sighed as Joseph's fingers massaged shampoo into her hair. His touch was magic as she relaxed and the steam of the scented water slowly helped her breathe better.
"Tilt your head back a little more, Clarisse. I'm going to rinse your hair."
She nodded and did as asked, her body reacting to the touch of his hand on her bare back as he helped her balance while he used his free hand to pour water over her hair, rinsing the lavender suds away. She tried to ignore the tingling sensation his touched caused, but somehow found her mind focusing more and more on the touch until she shivered when it disappeared.
"I'll hurry with the conditioner so you don't get too cold." Joseph told her as he let her rest back against the tub's surface.
"Not cold," she mumbled as she stared up at him.
"Oh," he murmured, noticing the look in her eyes. Focusing his attention on the amount of conditioner he was squeezing into his hand, Joseph tried to control the excitement he felt at the reaction Clarisse had to his touch. It had been electric, touching her silky wet skin, and he'd felt nearly overwhelmed with it. Now he knew that she'd felt the same way.
Clarisse felt herself falling further under Joseph's spell and slid down a little more into the water. Feeling his hand on her shoulder, she sat up a bit, tilting her head back once more. The warm water rushing over her head made her hum in appreciation, the tingle of his skin on hers, making her toes curl beneath the water and bubbles.
Finished rinsing her hair, Joseph set the cup back on the floor and gently helped her lean back. "Here's a sponge. I'm going to go turn the heat up some more."
Taking the sponge he held out to her, she smiled at his manners. "Thank you," she whispered and watched as he disappeared out the door. She chuckled when she realized that the door had been left standing open. "So much for locking it," she mumbled as she wet the sponge, moving it over her body. Hurrying her task as much as she could, she had just squeezed the excess water from the sponge when she heard Joseph enter the bathroom.
"I suppose you noticed that we forgot to shut the door, much less lock it," he commented as he lifted the robe from its place on the back of said door.
"Uh hum," she agreed.
"All finished?" he asked as he stared down at her.
"Do you think you feel strong enough to stand up on your own? Or move to sit on the side of the tub?"
"Maybe." She reached out to brace herself on the side of the tub, looking up at him and smiling when she saw that his eyes were closed.
"Just let me know when you're ready."
Hanging her head and taking a deep breath, she lifted herself up. "Ready," she whispered with effort.
Moving on instinct, Joseph placed the robe on her shoulders, waiting for her to slip her arms in before opening his eyes. "Just stay there. I'm going to lift the drain to let the water go down. Then we'll wrap you up more in your robe and I'll carry you back to bed."
She nodded and chuckled with a gasp when a towel was placed on her head, covering her eyes. "Hey."
He laughed, "Sorry, but I just remembered that we need to dry your hair." Using his fingers to gently squeeze the water from her golden curls, he dried her ears and neck before dropping the towel to the floor.
Looking down to see what the water level was, Clarisse pulled her robe closer together, managing to tie the belt as she waited for Joseph.
"Ready?" he asked, lifting her after she nodded her head. "See? I didn't see a thing I wasn't supposed to." He winked.
"Oh you," she whispered, playfully tapping his cheek as she held on. Pressing a kiss to his temple, she sighed, "Thank you for the tender loving care you've given me, Joseph."
Placing her on the bed, he caressed a damp tendril of hair behind her ear. "No need to thank me." He leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. "You have to know that I love you, Clarisse. That I would do anything for you."
"You'll get sick being this close," she warned.
"I shall take my chances."
She smiled and cupped his cheek. "Do you know that I love you?" she asked.
"I wasn't certain until tonight." He clasped her hand.
"I've tried so hard to fight the truth because I didn't want to love anyone."
"I've tried to fight my love for you because I knew that it would never be possible to show you."
"Oh, but Joseph, you've shown me…in so many different ways, you've shown me," she breathed.
"You should rest now. I'll get your nightgown. Or would you prefer a pair a pajamas?"
She bit her lip. "Nightgown and uh," she hesitated then chuckled at the red tinge that seeped into his cheeks when he realized why.
"Oh. Well, I'll get those too."
Smiling at him, she pressed a kiss to his hand. "You're a dear."
"But don't tell anyone. It'll ruin my tough guy reputation."
"I wouldn't dream of it."