Chapter Two / Test Run
The twenty-first century…
Were the old rooms haunted or not? The rational young woman who occupied them scoffed at the idea. Perfectly logical reasons existed for creaking floorboards, dimming lights, and rooms suddenly grown cold. A centuries-old building like Tara Hall would naturally produce odd noises, and the heat and electricity undoubtedly needed updating with all the computers and modern machinery draining the power. Still, enough superstition infected Talty Boru’s Irish blood to make her wonder.
Fidgeting in her leather chair, Ireland’s Crown Princess placed her pen on her heirloom desk and rubbed her fingers, cramped from signing piles of letters and official documents.
Cramped and suddenly cold. Talty glanced out the twelve-foot windows expecting to see dark clouds, but the September sky stretched clear and blue over Dublin City.
Was there a ghost?
Of course not. Her rooms were at the northern end of The Hall. They missed out on most of those glorious sunbeams. The wind outside her lofty fourth floor chambers must have picked up. She snatched the remote control for the fireplace. The flames whispered on, and she chided herself for even considering the idea of phantoms. The sense of history in her offices had set her imagination spinning, that was all. Generations of her predecessors, including her father and his father, had occupied these rooms before moving across the hall to the King’s—or Queen’s—Chambers.
Thanks to the Act of Heritance, which decreed that Ireland’s throne would pass to the previous monarch’s eldest child regardless of sex, these rooms belonged to Talty now. They would continue to be hers, she hoped, for a long, long time. She’d settled in over the last two years, bringing an array of personal items: small statues and artwork, favorite books, a sound system, and an eclectic collection of music. A piano sonata tinkled from hidden speakers now.
Since her return to The Hall, a fresh arrangement of Princess Taillte roses arrived in her office every few days to grace the alcove between the windows. A master horticulturist had bred the pink flowers to commemorate Talty’s birth twenty-eight years before. Their spicy scent alone would surely banish any lurking goblins.
Heat from the fireplace warmed Talty’s face. As she reached for her pen, the intercom buzzed. “The helicopter is on its way, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Denis. I’ll have these letters signed before I leave.” Rising from her seat, she crossed the oriental carpet to the nearest window and gazed down at the big white “H” on the black helipad.
Beyond the helipad, Tara Hall’s gardens and manicured lawns ran down to the River Liffey. Talty squinted to the north expecting to spot the approaching helicopter, but the shiny black aircraft wasn’t visible yet. She returned to her desk and continued whittling down the stack of papers.
Most of the pages were letters and memos. All bore the royal crest of the Boru clan, a crowned lion that seemed to snarl when he caught Talty daydreaming. He roared on the next page. At least she imagined he did. She nearly roared back as she eyed the familiar heading:
Office of the Deputy Head of State, H.R.H. Taillte Rosaleen Boru
Engagements for Week Beginning 8 September
Every Thursday, Talty’s private secretary prepared her calendar for the following week’s public appearances. Upon Talty’s review and approval of the schedule, he sent copies to security as well as to Talty’s personal aide to facilitate wardrobe selections for each appointment. Finally, he posted the list of engagements on Talty’s page of the royal family’s official web site.
The list for the next seven days was just as packed as it had been since her parents left Ireland for an unprecedented month-long cruise around the Hawaiian Islands. Talty had volunteered to pick up both their public appearances and administrative duties that they might forget being King Brian and Queen Eileen for a while. Although Talty’s brother and cousins were helping her cover the endless commitments, between four and six appearances had crammed her personal calendar each day for the last two weeks. The next two promised no relief. She couldn’t wait for her parents to return.
Seeking comfort, she touched the silver picture frame beside the intercom. She’d taken the photograph herself, a stealth shot that had captured her husband and their year-old son, Donal, dozing together on the rocking chair in the nursery. Even napping, Neil Boru was a handsome man.
Talty frowned at her thumb. She’d forgotten she’d chipped the finish on her nail during this morning’s workout, a daily ritual with Neil in their home gymnasium. That would never do, not with all the hands she’d be shaking today. The bottle of clear polish she kept in her bottom drawer helped touch up the offending nick. While the lacquer dried, she silently reviewed her speeches for today’s engagements.
Two public appearances, both on Ireland’s west coast, were on the agenda. In the afternoon, Talty would officially open the Foundation for Marine Studies in Galway, a project dear to her father, one he’d conceived and brought to life. He’d nearly refused to go on vacation until she’d assured him she’d give the opening ceremonies all the pomp they deserved.
The morning appointment was a much simpler affair: the opening of a new historic center in Mayo honoring Grace O’Malley, the sixteenth-century Pirate Queen whose adventures had always fascinated Talty. She looked forward to seeing the exhibit.
The intercom buzzed again. “Prince Liam is here, ma’am.”
Before she could say, “Send him in,” the door to the outer office burst open. Surprised and delighted, Talty jumped from her chair. She hadn’t seen much of her brother lately. His calendar, as crammed as her own in their parents’ absence, had kept him and his again-pregnant wife uncommonly busy.
Yet Liam seemed undaunted by his excess royal chores. A brilliant young lawyer and well-known teller of Irish folktales, he projected the air of a confident young man whom nothing and no one could hurry. His thick, well-styled hair, the same chestnut brown as Talty’s, could do with a trim, but he stood tall and handsome in his dark-brown suit and houndstooth tie. He wore contacts instead of his gold-rimmed glasses, and mischief charged his affable grin.
With the seeds of an idea sprouting, Talty stepped from behind her desk and extended her hand. “Howya, Li.”
He drew her fingers to his lips for a quick peck. “I’m well, Lady Sister. Maura and I are off to launch the National Garden Show in a few minutes, but I wanted to stop by and wish you luck on your visit to Galway. Is your speech ready?”
Talty sighed. “Yes, and I’m dreading it. I wish I were spending the whole day in Mayo.”
“Ah, I forgot. You’re opening the Grace O’Malley Museum too.”
“Yes. Spending the morning with pirates ought to prepare me for dealing with all the politicians slithering around the Marine Foundation later.”
Liam laughed, and not without sympathy. “They won’t all be politicians, Tal. The scientists and benefactors should help keep you sane. Keep an eye out for a fella named Cyprian Sharette, better known as Roxy. He’s a friend of mine. Business man from Brittany. One of the biggest sponsors of the foundation. I met him at an archaeological society meeting, and he convinced me to invest in a company he’s forming.”
Talty glanced at her watch. The helicopter would be here soon. “Oh? What sort of company?”
“Luxury submarines. So far he’s only built one.”
She blinked, unsure she’d heard him correctly. “Luxury submarines? Is there such a thing?”
“Oh yes. The one he’s built is his personal vessel. He likes to find old shipwrecks. Promised to take me down to see a few when I can get away from The Hall.”
“I wouldn’t mind an outing like that myself.”
“I thought so. Look for him. He’s a decent sort, and I expect he’ll need protection from all those slithering politicians. I’d better go and let you get ready. Your ride will be here soon.” Liam turned for the door.
She grabbed his arm. “Don’t go yet. I have a favor to ask.”
With a disarming smile and a slight bow, Liam asked how he might assist his lovely Lady Sister. Talty hesitated. Would he consider her daft?
Maybe, but she could think of no one else who might help her. “I’d like you to look into the prior occupants of this office.”
“You mean Dad and his father?”
“No. I want you to go way back. Maybe hundreds of years. Find out if anything strange happened in here.” Talty glanced about the room as if someone were listening.
Liam’s eyes widened. “You think the place is haunted? Maybe it’s a good thing you’re in here instead of me.”
Talty crossed her arms and raised her chin. “Of course I don’t think it’s haunted. I simply want to get a sense of the history here. The scratching I hear is undoubtedly mice. The sounds of splashing water in the lav, though no one is in there, is just old plumbing. And when I catnap on the couch and someone who isn’t really here wakes me up, I’m only dreaming. Will you look into this for me or not?”
A thoughtful expression replaced Liam’s grin. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I’ve heard of old buildings acting up. If you want, we can see about moving you to another room.”
“No. I like it here. I just want to know. Y’know?”
He kissed her cheek. “I’ll check into it first chance I get. One of these days, Maura and I will have dinner with you and Neil, and we’ll talk more about it. Now go see your pirates and politicians. I’m off to smell the roses.”
Talty thanked him and closed the door. His offer to help reassured her. Other than briefly mentioning the suite’s eerie atmosphere to her father, she’d never told anyone, not even Neil, of her notions about the rooms. She’d assumed she’d be ridiculed, but Liam hadn’t laughed at her. She would check her appointments and find time for dinner with him and Maura.
Concerned by her increasingly overwhelming schedule, and worried about the workload Denis bore without complaint, Talty returned to her desk and hurriedly signed the rest of the letters. She’d been eager to prove she could do the job so her father wouldn’t worry, but the work was taking its toll. She smiled wistfully at the photograph on her desk and realized she hadn’t seen little Donal for nearly three days. Yes, he was safe at Rathmuir with Nanny Maude and the watchful house staff, but Talty missed her son. She saw Neil often enough, but it seemed they’d met purely for business reasons these last two weeks.
With security mastermind Kieran Dacey off protecting her parents, Neil had taken charge of the rest of the royal family’s safety. Poor Neil seemed as inundated as acting chief of security as Talty did as acting head of state.
What would her father think of her hectic schedule?
Put that way, the answer was ridiculously simple. She hit the intercom button. “Denis? Come in here, please.”
In seconds, the door opened. “You rang, ma’am?”
Denis Muldowney’s ready smile set his mustache twitching and the skin around his hazel eyes crinkling. His two front teeth crossed a charming tad, and what was left of his sandy hair lay neatly combed over his shiny scalp. Meticulous in a three-piece suit, he leaned on the silver cane he’d needed since a drunk driver hit his motorcycle three years before. He’d been thirty-seven at the time, a lieutenant in the Naval Service, the Executive Aide to the Commander of Naval Operations. The accident had forced him to retire from the navy, and his honorable discharge had done little to raise his two children. He’d floundered at different jobs until Talty began setting up her secretariat. Based on his former commander’s effusive recommendations and her kinsmen’s hearty approvals, she’d appointed Denis her private secretary and chief executive aide.
“I’ve finished signing your letters.” Talty tapped the agenda on her desk. “All but this thing. Work your magic on this, Denis. Clear an afternoon for me. I want to spend time with my son before he forgets who I am.”
Denis hobbled into the room, his stiff leg dragging on the rug. His sparkling eyes seemed to change from brown to green and back again as he approached. He took the schedule from her and studied it. “Wednesday next should do, ma’am. Nothing we can’t postpone. I can clear the whole day, if you like.”
“Don’t tempt me, Denis.” But she thought about it. “The whole day? Where would we fit everything? It’s no good if I’d have to do twice as much the next day.”
“The three ambassadors presenting their credentials Wednesday can come with those presenting theirs on Friday. The morning engagement is a visit to the new pediatric wing at St. Joseph’s Hospital. We can hold off on that until after your parents return, unless you’d care to squeeze it in next week.”
Excited by the prospect of a day off, Talty grinned at her co-conspirator. “The only squeezing I want to do… Check with Ann, please. See if Neil can finagle some time off this Wednesday. And let the kitchen know the Wednesday ambassadors are now the Friday ambassadors. Thanks, Denis.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.”
Outside the building, a distant murmur grew to a loud “bat bat bat.” The helicopter had arrived. Happier than she’d felt in days, Talty handed the pile of letters to Denis and scurried into her changing room. She stopped at the vanity near the window and applied a subtle spritz of her citrusy day perfume, the one Neil had specially made in Italy for her. Next, she took a moment to scrutinize her appearance in the freestanding mirror.
Her teal suit jacket was, as always, buttoned to her neck to hide the scars a would-be assassin’s knife had left on her chest several years before. Next, she checked that her Fianna pin hung straight on her collar. The gold pin proclaimed her one of Ireland’s elite Fianna: the watchers of the coast, the guardians of the shore. Barely an inch in circumference, the brooch resembled an archaic shield. Across it lay a tiny sword. Three diamonds embellished the hilt, one for each component of the Fian motto: “Truth in our Hearts, Strength in our Arms, Dedication to our Promise.”
As Talty continued her inspection, her bubbly mood vanished. Her dark red hair and brown Boru eyes hadn’t changed since Donal’s birth. Her chiseled cheekbones and ivory skin looked the same. The body beneath her charcoal gray dress had changed a great deal, however.
She’d worked hard to get back into shape after the baby’s arrival, and though she felt as fit as ever, the shape she’d gotten back into was…different. Her ribs and hips would always be a tad wider than they’d been before unborn Donal had kicked them to pieces.
Neil was a devoted father. He’d always been an attentive husband, yet their lack of intimacy over the last two weeks left her concerned about his romantic interest in her.
His knock on the door cut short her latest session of self-doubt. “Tal? Are you ready? The chopper’s here.”
“Coming.” She drew an all-weather coat from the well-stocked closet.
Neil entered the changing room and closed the door behind him. The gorgeous azure eyes beneath his thick, blue-black hair glinted like polished steel as he eyed her up and down. His navy blue suit, well-cut and casual, accented his hard-muscled physique. A Fianna pin identical to Talty’s adorned his left lapel.
His delicious male presence flustered her. Wondering yet again what he thought when he saw her now, she held her coat self-consciously in front of her.
He snatched it away, tossed it on a nearby chair, and pulled her into his arms. His lips slid over hers, seizing them with an intensity that sent waves of pleasure pulsing from her ears to her toes. Still holding her tight, he broke the kiss and nibbled her ear. “I’m missing you, Tal. A lot. Let’s get home early tonight.”
Breathless and weak-kneed, she sputtered before she answered. “Well. Well, I suppose. I think we can.”
He tugged her hair. “Oh, we most certainly can, darlin’. We have a license, after all. It’s finding the time that’s the trick.”
Smiling that bewitching smile, the one that made her mouth water, he retrieved her coat. How could she ever have wondered what he thought? New mother insecurity, that’s what the women in the family told her. If he kept this up, she’d get over it soon enough.
Glad now that she’d contrived to take next Wednesday off, she smiled back at him and slung the strap of her black leather purse over her shoulder. “Sometimes I’m sorry you sold the penthouse. I used to love slipping home for lunch.”
Neil opened the dressing room door. “We never ate much lunch, as I recall.”
She stepped into the doorway, grazing her hip intimately against him. “We need a place of our own here in Dublin. Even a townhouse would do.”
For one sweet moment, he rubbed back. Then, all business again, he nudged her ahead of him. “No, it wouldn’t. We need something with good security, especially if we want to bring the baby up to the city now and then. I’m looking, Tal. Give me some time.”
“When my parents get back, I’ll help you look.” She bid the fanciful ghosts a silent farewell and turned out the lights. After a quick good-bye to Denis, she and Neil strolled down The Hall’s executive wing to the family’s private elevator.
When they passed the King’s Chambers, the sight of the royal lion carved into the door weighed Talty down. Her father’s absence troubled her more than she would have believed. Brian had become king when he was only twenty-seven, a year younger than Talty was now. How had he coped? Better than she was coping, she was sure of that. A test run, she’d called it when she’d convinced him to take her mother off on the vacation he’d been promising her forever.
Brian wasn’t sixty yet. He’d be around for years—and years and years, Talty hoped—before he’d go off for good, leaving her at the kingdom’s helm for the rest of her life. Refusing to contemplate either her beloved father’s inevitable death or her destined bondage to the throne, she snapped her attention elsewhere. “Are you flying today?”
Neil shook his head. “Dan is. I haven’t seen much of you lately, and I thought we’d catch up during the flight. I want to talk to you about an investment opportunity.”
“What?” Worried anew about waning lust, Talty stopped and stared at him. “Is that why you’re acting all lovey-dovey? Over money?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” His scolding tone and strategically aimed pat to her backside reassured her. “I can’t help having to sandwich things into the short blocks of time we have, and the matter relates to the Marine Foundation you’re opening this afternoon.”
“Oh? How so?” They started walking again, chatting over the click of their shoes.
“One of the foundation’s sponsors will be there. Filthy rich fella named Roxy something. Seems he’s become friends with Liam. Invited him to invest in a new company he’s forming.”
“Li told me about it right before you came. The man’s name is Sharette. He’s planning to build luxury submarines.”
“That’s it. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to talk to him. You were saying the other day you want to do something with what’s left of the funds your last husband left you. This might be a good way to grow that money.”
The late Eric Yamada had been a kind and generous man. Ten years before, the samurai warrior had married Talty in name only and taken her to his home in Japan to protect her from assassins. She’d blossomed under his care and tutelage.
She and Neil reached the elevator. He pushed the call button; the door whooshed open.
Talty stepped inside. “Like we need more money. I was talking about donating it to charity.”
“You can still do that, but you’d be donating a lot more if this company takes off. The fella’s been operating as a privately held business.” The door closed. Neil hit another button, and the elevator descended. “He wants to raise money to build these subs by incorporating the business and selling shares. I think you should buy up a chunk with that money.”
“So this is what happens when you turn thirty? You become a boring financier?”
“I won’t be thirty until next month. As for boring, I don’t blame you for thinking that lately.” He stepped toward her. “Maybe I can change your mind.”
Playing now, she shoved him away. “I thought you wanted to talk about money. It seems immoral, investing in something so far over the means of ordinary people.”
“Morality has nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of simple economics. The Irish Exchequer doesn’t subsidize the royal family. We’re responsible for our own finances. We’re to live on our trusts and bequests, and keep them growing for those who come after us.”
Neil’s dancing gaze settled on Talty’s face. The tip of his tongue slid between his lips, and not because of money.
She willed her racing pulse to calm. “I know all that. The money we’ve inherited and received as gifts is so much, I don’t really need what’s left of Eric’s money. But I want to do some good with it, not play Santa Claus for some eccentric billionaire’s latest lark.”
“All right, how about this? Invest the money in Sharette’s company. When you make enough of a return, sell the stock and buy the Marine Foundation those submersibles they need.”
He was doing his best to sound nonchalant, but she caught the tiny thrill in his voice. “This money stuff is all sport to you, isn’t it?”
“I take my sport where I get it.” He backed her up against the wall, ran a knuckle over her breast, and kissed her mercilessly until the elevator reached the ground floor.
When the door opened, she couldn’t remember where she was.
Neil shifted her coat on his arm and slid his free hand around her waist. “We’ll continue this later, babe. Let’s go see the Pirate Queen.”