Leaving her meeting with the gathered nobles of Gaunner, Jeannine heads for the meeting she’s been dreading.
With great reluctance, I headed for my next appointment. I had avoided visiting the Holder family for the last several days. Servants and guards took care of their every need while giving the family a chance to come to grips with everything that happened to them during the short revolt.
Reports told me the children were doing fine, which wasn’t a surprise. They aren’t old enough to know what’s going on. Those same reports said Mike and Carol Holder appeared calmer and less fearful than when I’d seen them last—right after Captain Pennington and his crew pulled them from their house.
I had originally hoped the Holders might become friends—people well outside a duchess’s normal social circles who could help keep me grounded and aware of the needs of my citizens. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t raised among the nobility, but I naïvely thought someone like me could have friends like them without those friends finding themselves dragged into political schemes and machinations. I had been horribly wrong about that and Sasha, the Holder’s four-year-old daughter, was targeted for kidnapping as a result.
Mike and Carol were less than thrilled with their newfound fame—especially when it drew unwelcome attention to their children. As a result, they drew back from Drake and me when we met with them the night the revolt was put down. And who could blame them? I sure as hell couldn’t! If our situations were reversed, I’m pretty sure I’d have reacted just as they had.
I stopped before the door to the palace apartment I’d provided for them. Looking back at the two guards trailing me, I said, “Please stay out of sight. I’d like to at least pretend everything is normal.”
The guards nodded and took up positions along the same wall as the door and five meters down from it on either side. With a nod of thanks to them, I knocked on the door. Carol answered, and I found myself holding my breath, waiting to hear her greeting.
She nodded as if she’d been expecting me, and said, “Lady Jeanine, what a pleasant surprise. Won’t you come in?”
I released my breath quietly, smiling to hide my disappointment at her formal greeting. “Only if it’s not an imposition, Mrs. Holder.”
With a quick smile—all mouth and going nowhere near her eyes—Carol replied, “It is we who impose on you, my lady, by taking you away from your important work. As always, we are at your service.”
Well, I guess that told me everything I needed to know about how this conversation was going to go. With a nod of thanks, I entered the apartment.
Unlike my previous visit, both of the children were awake. Young Will smiled at me but stayed in his father’s lap. Sasha, on the other hand, hopped up and ran toward me with open arms.
“Duchess Lady Jeanine!” she cried. “Are we gonna play Princess today? Is Mr. Drake with you?”
“Sasha, stop that this instant!” Carol commanded. “Lady Jeanine has more important things to do than play with you.”
Watching Sasha’s face crumble almost broke my heart. I wanted to go down on one knee, give her a hug, and play Princess with her more than I could say. But, I wasn’t going to gainsay her mother—especially after recent events.
I did go down on one knee, though, and said, “I’m afraid your mother is right, I don’t have time to play right now. I really wish I did, though, because playing Princess with you is a lot of fun.”
Sasha perked up a little bit at my comment, but she still looked extremely disappointed. If you’ve never run across a disappointed four-year-old girl, that’s a lot of disappointment. “Okay.”
Her mother bent over her, and said, “Why don’t you take Will and go into the back room for a moment? Mommy and daddy have to have grown up talk with Lady Jeanine.”
Carol stood and crossed her arms, giving her daughter a ‘mom look.’ At least, that’s what the look meant when I’d seen it on vid shows. “You heard me, young lady!”
The little girl wasn’t happy with the instructions, but she took her brother’s hand and led him into another room. Only after the door shut, did Carol take a seat next to her husband. They both looked at me and waited for me to speak.
Drawing a breath, I said, “I hope you both know that I would give anything in the world to make this whole situation go away. Unfortunately, that’s beyond my power.”
Mike Holder nodded politely and said, “We understand, my Lady.”
I understood the unspoken part of his comment, too. They understood the situation, but that didn’t mean they were ready to forgive me for my part in dragging them into it. I waited for a beat, in case either of them wanted to say something more. They didn’t.
Unwilling to torture any of us by dragging this out any longer, I continued, “I’m told the repairs to your home are complete. You can move back in whenever you wish.”
The couple merely nodded. To fill the void, I found myself adding, “The overseer told me everything looks exactly the same as before. You’ll never know anything even happened.”
Carol frowned, “But we do know it happened! We know our safe little home, in our safe little neighborhood, was invaded. For God’s sake, my lady, men and women were gunned down in my living room!”
Closing my eyes, I nodded in sympathy. “I understand.”
“No, my lady, you really don’t,” Carol insisted. “How can I even sit in that room without imagining the horrors that took place there? How can I sleep in that house without wondering if powerful people are targeting my family again? How can I ever feel safe in that house again? How can our neighbors ever feel safe living near us? How can our lives ever be the same again?”
“I don’t see how they can be,” I admitted. “What can I do to help make you feel safe?”
“Leave us alone, my Lady,” Mike replied. “We understand this wasn’t your fault. We understand you wish you could make it all go away. And, we understand that you can’t do that. So, please, just don’t do anything.”
“I’ll abide by your wishes, of course,” I said. “Someone will be along shortly to help you move back home.” Just before opening the door, I looked back at the couple. “My offer of help remains open for as long as I am the Duchess of Gaunner. If you change your minds, simply call the palace and identify yourselves. You’ll be put through to me immediately.”
As the apartment door slid shut behind me, I forcibly pushed the Holders from my mind and turned my attention to the myriad duties before me. I had fifty billion other subjects counting on me to rule wisely and could no longer dwell on the misfortunes of one family.
‘Happily ever after’ is obviously not in the cards for Jeanine. Is life any better for Princess Olivia?