A private elevator whispered open on the fourth floor of Dublin’s Tara Hall, the architectural gem from which Ireland’s royal family had conducted their day-to-day business for generations. King Brian Boru stepped from the elevator and flipped on the overhead lights, though he could have navigated the familiar corridor in the dark after a lifetime of working at The Hall.
Brian passed the door to his sumptuous office suite and turned down a deserted alcove. His casual summer shoes made no sound on the polished marble floors, though his pounding heart seemed louder with each step he took. He reached the unmarked door he sought and drew a small iron key from the inside pocket of his leather jacket.
His shaking hand slipped the old key into an even older lock. Despite its age, the cylinder clicked easily when he turned it. With a gentle twist of the doorknob, he entered the abandoned chambers for the first time in nearly thirty years and turned on the lights.
Sunlight trickled through dingy windows and cobwebbed curtains. Bolts of white cloth covered the furniture. Dust smothered everything. Brian wrinkled his nose at the musty air.
As Crown Prince of Ireland, he’d toiled and trained in these rooms, expecting to occupy them for many years. It wasn’t to be. He had just turned twenty-seven when unexpected illness claimed his beloved father.
The whole nightmare came flooding back: the tolling bells, the state funeral, and Brian’s gut-wrenching transition to the King’s Chambers after sealing the Deputy Head of State’s rooms behind him. Now, as he absorbed the slumbering spirit of his former quarters, he wondered which of his two children would rouse that spirit to life.
Talty, his firstborn, would be here now if he hadn’t removed her as Crown Princess for the sake of a disastrous treaty. His son Liam, a brilliant young scholar and storyteller, had been Crown Prince for several years. Both siblings seemed to have accepted Liam’s investiture as heir to the throne.
Brian had not. He’d held off opening these rooms for his son, waiting for his indomitable daughter to return from the exile that had both outraged and toughened her. Yet Talty had been home for months now and had expressed no interest in reclaiming her former title. While Brian was reluctant to command her to do so, he meant to set things back in their proper place.
How to do it without hurting his children troubled him. His own father had told him that after he was gone, he would whisper in Brian’s ear whenever he needed advice. Brian had yearned for that whisper more than once, though of course it had never come, and never would. Still, he listened hard now.
“The time has flown by, Brian.”
No whisper from the grave, but the familiar, dusky voice that Brian still cherished after more than thirty years of marriage. Eileen Mandeville Boru, his beloved wife and queen, stood in the doorway, her blond hair caught in a tie at the nape of her neck. She, too, wore casual attire: a dark velour sweatsuit that set off her light blue eyes. Whether Eileen wore a sweatsuit or a formal ball gown, the sight of her never failed to soften Brian’s eye.
He should’ve guessed she’d follow him here. He’d told her of his plan to unlock the door that morning, and she’d fretted that seeing his old offices would distress him after all these years. Brian hadn’t dealt well with his father’s death.
“Time passes faster and faster, Leenie. Even a king can’t stop it.”
Eileen’s worried frown dissolved into a radiant smile. She crossed the room and hugged him. “You have a few good years left in you, I think.”
He bent to kiss her; she sneezed before he could. “Bless you, Leenie. Let’s get out of here. This place has more dust than a Welsh coal mine.”
She sneezed again. “I think most of it is in your beard.”
Brian locked the door behind them. They returned to the main corridor, where he opened another door, one hewn from oak and bearing the royal lion of the Boru clan.
Eileen slipped before him into the lavish King’s Chambers. Her queenly hands weren’t above making tea. She headed for the bar sink, filled an electric kettle, and set it to boil. “Have you decided what to do about Talty and Liam?”
With a weary sigh, Brian found the remote and switched on the gas fireplace. “I’m torn over it. Liam doesn’t say so, but he isn’t thrilled about being Crown Prince. He’d rather be in museums digging through moldy old records, or telling stories in the grade schools.”
“Don’t I know.” After rinsing an antique teapot with hot tap water, Eileen measured loose tea into it. “He’s never complained, though.”
“And he never will. Liam will do what we expect of him when it comes to his royal duties. Still, I’d rather he said he doesn’t want the job before I ask him to step aside. He’d be hurt if I asked him first, and I don’t want that.”
“Is that why you’ve been tormenting the poor boy?”
Brian grinned. She knew him well. “I’d prefer he and Talty sort this thing out between them. The thing is, I’m not sure Talty wants to be Crown Princess again.”
“Talty will also do whatever you ask of her. She always has.”
Like a spark that glows and quickly fizzles, Brian’s merriment vanished. Yet another wave of guilt washed over him for the horrific injuries his daughter had suffered because of his treaty mongering. “Yes. She always has.”
When the familiar clink of a china lid fitting into a teapot announced that the tea was steeping, Brian carried the tea tray to the table before the fireplace. He and Eileen sat facing each other, savoring the silence. “She’s been through a lot, Leenie. I don’t want to press her.”
The silver tea strainer sparkled in Eileen’s slender hands. She strained tea into their cups and reached for the sugar. “And so you’re badgering poor Liam and forbidding Talty to come to Tara Hall. You’re the king, Brian. Just tell them what you want. Talty and Liam understand duty. They’re Borus, after all.”
“I’m not the one forbidding Talty. Her superiors at International Security Forces have restrictions against their officers working for sovereign governments, and I agree. She can’t join us until she receives her discharge.”
Eileen’s blue eyes darkened with mutiny. “No one would care if you let her do a few small things. If you don’t want her, I’d love to have her in my new medical charities group. She can help me plan the opening of the ISF lab’s new research wing.”
“She can’t do these things while she’s still an ISF officer.”
“That’s nonsense! She should be doing this one because she’s an ISF officer. We wouldn’t even have that lab if it weren’t for Talty and her friends. You’re baiting her, just as you’re baiting Liam. You’re a conniving scoundrel, Brian Boru!”
Brian raised his cup and smiled. “It will work. You’ll see. Our children are capable and intelligent.”
“And just as devious as you when they have to be.”
“As you said, darlin’, they’re Borus, after all. First thing Monday, I’ll have those rooms cleaned. Talty will be in them before you know it, whipping us all into shape. The new broom sweeps the house best, eh?”
Crinkles of unmistakable challenge appeared on Eileen’s forehead. She sat back and crossed her legs. “We’re having dinner with Talty and Neil tomorrow night. I don’t want you starting any trouble.”
“Me? I’ll be a perfect angel.”
“You’d better be. It’s their first dinner in their new house, and I want it to go well.” A wistful look mellowed her hard-boiled tone. “She and Neil are so sweet together. So romantic. They’re probably enjoying a lovely Saturday morning cuddle right now.”
* * * * *
Thwack! Neil Boru barely raised the wooden pole in time to block his wife’s attack. No matter that his strength exceeded hers. His arms prickled from the relentless pummeling of Talty’s bata against his. Agile as a ballet dancer, he retreated over the training room floor.
Thwack! Thwack! Before they’d become lovers, he’d never shown Talty any favor when they’d honed their fighting skills. Instead, he’d paid close attention, knowing better than anyone that her graceful moves could produce spectacular bruises. Today, however, he was having one hell of a time concentrating. He fought to ignore the limber form, protectively padded as it was, that only an hour before had snuggled beside him in bed.
Thwack! Neil dropped to the floor and rolled to his feet behind her. Just hard enough to trip her, he swung his bata in a sneak attack at her ankles, but she spun around and caught him. Grinning savagely, she leapt high. The bata whooshed beneath her, missing her feet by inches.
When her perfect landing flowed into yet another challenging stance, Neil broke the rules: he tossed his bata down and lunged. One hand slapped the pole from her hands; the other knocked her off balance. He rolled her to the floor, taking care to land on top of her. His hands pinned her arms. His thighs covered hers in a most unsporting way.
Beneath her head, her dark red ponytail fanned out on the floor. Outrage flared in her chestnut eyes. “Get off me, you big dope!”