It was dusk when their plane set down at the Boston airport. Security guards escorted them to their waiting stretch limousine, which Michael had ordered in advance to accommodate not only the two guards but Alexandra's personal maid whom she had brought along. Sondra and Jack were waiting with Jo and Rick and their families at Margaret's apartment, where the royal party would be accommodated during their visit. The entire staff was staying on until Margaret's household and personal possessions could be sorted over and disposed of or moved to the farm.
Michael and Alexandra were greeted first by Sondra, who hugged and kissed them both. The look of surprise on Alexandra's face turned to pleasure, and she kissed not only Sondra and Jack but also Rick and Jo, while Farah looked on in astonishment. Why, the old hypocrite, she thought with unaccustomed fondness; she's starved for love but too stubborn to show it. We could have been such good friends all these years if only she had let down her guard.
When Farah embraced Jack, he wept in her arms, while she made comforting sounds. "It's so hard to give her up," he said, wiping his eyes.
"Yes, you do, don't you? I was happy for you when you married Michael. He's a good man."
"None better. And he changed my luck. I couldn't be happier."
She hugged Jack again and turned to Sondra, who came weeping into her arms. Sondra's mother had died when she was a young girl, and she was taking Margaret's death hard. "She's been failing for a long time," she said, "and I know she's out of her misery now, but it's so hard to let her go. She was like my own mother to me."
"I loved her, too," said Farah, trying to hold back her own tears.
Sondra wiped her eyes. "When I think about what You've been through, I'm ashamed. You're made of strong stuff, Farah, to have survived all that."
"You'll survive, too, Sondra. But there's a time for weeping, so don't hold back the tears."
"Stay with us for awhile, Farah. Can you stay with us?"
"I plan to. Michael and Alexandra will go back in a couple of days but I'll be here for awhile longer."
"Good. We'll a;; be so glad to have you."
After a late dinner, Alexandra asked to be excused, saying she was tired from the trip. Sondra escorted her to her room and asked if there was anything she needed.
"Just a good night's sleep," she said. "You should rest, too, for the funeral tomorrow."
"I will, Your Highness."
"Margaret called me Alexandra. I hope all of you will do the same."
"Of course, Alexandra." Sondra kissed her impulsively. "I'm glad you came. Mother would be so pleased."
The church was crowded at Margaret's funeral, for her family had long been prominent is social and civic affairs. The scent from the masses of flowers almost overpowered Farah and she was relieved when the service was over, the body interred, and everyone back at the apartment. Mourners crowded the rooms, but mercifully no one overstayed their welcome and soon the family could relax in the calm, however temporary, that often follows the final interment.
Michael and Alexandra left the following day, leaving Farah with the family for a longer visit, after which she planned to make a quick trip to California to check on her property and visit a few friends. She and Michael had discussed selling Jason's house, but they had used it for vacations occasionally and both Nickolai and Megan voted in favor of keeping it.
Michael had planned to have the plane and guards return to take Farah to Los Angeles and back home to Zhad when she was ready, but she vetoed that, saying she would be perfectly safe on a commercial flight, because anyone interested in their activities would assume she had flown back with the others.
At the Los Angeles airport she rented a car and drove out to the house. Ned, who was still the caretaker, had been notified of her intended visit, and she would stay with him and his wife, Sara, while she was there.
The quality of the air as she drove from the airport appalled her, and was not much better in the canyons. As she pulled in the driveway she noted that the house looked shipshape. Ned had been watching for her and came hurrying out, followed by his wife.
"Miss Farah," he said, wringing her hand. "How good to see you." He looked disconcerted and added, "Your Highness."
"Please don't stand on ceremony, Ned," she told him with a smile. "In California I'll always be just Miss Farah. It's good to see you. How are you?"
"Well, I'm not getting any younger, but aside from a little arthritis I'm doing fine."
"Good," she said, and turned to shake hands with Sara. "I hope I'm not putting you to a lot of trouble. I'll be here only a couple of days and won't be around much of that time."
As Ned carried her luggage in, Sara asked if she would be staying for lunch. As it was almost noon, California time, Farah told her she would be glad to. By the look of pleasure on both their faces she guessed they had already prepared it.
After lunch, she went to a prearranged conference with Grant Allen, who handled her financial affairs. He pumped her hand in welcome and ushered her into his private office. He had moved to a new location since her last visit, and the appointments indicated he was doing quite well.
"You look remarkable," he said. "Not a day older than the last time I saw you."
"It's the climate," she said with a grin. "Don't tell anybody, but the fountain of youth has been discovered in Zhad and kept secret for the exclusive use of the royal family."
"Seeing you, I can believe it."
"You seem to be doing all right," she told him. "I like your new quarters."
"Yes, I'm doing very well." He pulled out a chair for her, then sat down behind his desk and opened ledgers. "I've prepared a rundown of all transactions since my last report." He proceeded to enumerate them, listing his reasons for each transaction.
When Farah rose to go she thanked Grant for his trouble, shook his hand, and left for an appointment with Suzi, who had remained one of her best friends over the years.
Suzi, too, when they met at a Beverly Hills restaurant, looked remarkably young, but confided that this was the result of a face "tuck" as she called it, when she deserted the stage for the movies.
"What do You do to stay so young?" she asked. "I thought for a minute it was Megan who had come to meet me. Gosh, you two look like twin sisters."
"I don't know what does it, but it isn't what I just told Grant Allen." She repeated her remark about the fountain of youth.
Suzi howled in delight. "Can I use that, too? I need a good answer for all those snoopy bitches who keep asking me. Everyone knows I visit you a lot in Zhad."
"Be my guest," Farah said, laughing.
Over an early dinner they chatted about mutual friends, and Farah asked if Suzi had kept in touch with Barry. They had divorced several years earlier, giving as their reason the fact that their careers kept them apart so much. Farah had always wondered if Suzi's greater success had not been at the root of their problems, especially as neither of them had remarried.
"We keep in touch," Suzi now answered lightly.
After dinner they went to Suzi's place and chatted until Farah said she'd better go. "If I know Ned, he'll sit up and worry about me until I get in," she said laughing.
"How long are you staying?"
"I have reservations for the day after tomorrow."
"Will I see you again before you go?"
"I'm afraid not. I'm all booked up for tomorrow."
"It's wonderful to see you. I'm going on location for a new movie in a few days. When that's finished maybe I'll hop over to Zhad to drink again from the fountain of youth."
"Good. We always enjoy your visits so much."
As predicted, Ned was waiting up for her. Farah thanked him and gave him a peck on the cheek, and he went to bed with a foolish grin on his face.
Because of the time difference, Farah woke quite early the next morning, wishing she had brought along a bathing suit so she could take an early morning dip. She compromised with a long, luxurious bath in Jason's fantastic bathroom. By the time she was dressed she smelled intriguing odors coming from the kitchen and went out to find Sara ready to dish up.
The table in the dining room had been set, but Farah said, "Why don't we just eat out here like a family?"
Sara looked uncertain, but Ned, perhaps because he remembered the goodnight peck on the cheek, was in favor of it. As they ate, Sara overcame her shyness and they sat at the table long after breakfast was over, chatting.
Finally, Farah said she had to depart for lunch with Monica, after which she planned to visit Kevin's grave.
Now in her sixties, Monica was the picture of health. She had been a good friend to Jason, and after his death took Farah under her wing. A frequent visitor to Zhad, she was one of Farah's friends Alexandra approved of wholeheartedly.
Monica loved to arrange big bashes for visiting celebrities, but as Farah's visit was so short there was just the two of them for lunch, and they let down their hair and had a marvelous time.
As she prepared to depart, Farah put her arms around Monica and said, "It's done me good to be with you. Come and see us soon, we all love to have you."
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away since you told me about the fountain of youth. Don't broadcast this around or your fountain of youth may run dry."
They were both laughing as Farah drove off, grateful to Jason for making it possible for her to have Monica as a friend.
Farah parked her car near the cemetery entrance, got out with a sheaf of red roses in her arms, and walked in the direction of Kevin's grave. As she got near she saw Noel rise from a kneeling position and come to meet her.
"Hello, Farah," he said. "It's been a long time."
"I look for you every time I come," she said.
"Do you come often?"
"Whenever I'm in California. I come to do penance."
"You, too?" he said. "I come to do penance several times a year."
"Once I made a special trip from Zhad to do penance." After a moment she added slowly, "When what I did to you is preying on my mind I always come here, hoping to see you and find out how you are."
He took the flowers from her and laid them on the ground. Then he put his arms around her and held her wordlessly, his face against hers wet with tears.
After a long moment she broke away and picked up the flowers. They walked hand in hand to Kevin's grave, and after Noel fetched water for the urn, Farah arranged the flowers.
Then she sat back on her heels and smiled at him. "I heard you remarried. I'm glad," she said. "Are you happy?"
He sat down beside her. "It was a long time before I could look at another woman. But, yes, I'm happy now. How about you?"
"Oh, yes. Michael is the best of husbands. We have two children and my life is very full."
"Are you here for a long visit?"
"Oh, no. Aunt Margaret died in Boston and we came over for the funeral. Michael and his mother went back several days ago and I came on out here. I'm flying back tomorrow."
"I thought I wasn't going to find time to come here today. Thank goodness I did. What we had was so beautiful but I was too big a fool to know how to handle it."
"You did what you had to, Noel. Circumstance plays a very large role in all our lives." After a pause, she said, "How is Judy?"
"Fine. Kevin's death shocked some sense into her, and she grew up. She started living her own life and her health improved remarkably." He looked at her with a wry smile. "Just as you told me it would."
"Is she married?"
"To a very fine young man. They have two children."
"And I bet you're a doting grandpa."
"Guilty as charged. Judy is always complaining that I spoil them."
"What are grandpas for?"
They sat for a long time, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, happy to be together, until all the guilt and self-incrimination seemed to run out of them. Finally, Farah stood up and said she had to go.
They walked in silence to her car, and stood looking at each other. Finally, Farah said slowly, "I'll always love you, Noel. You were my first love and very dear to me. But Michael is my husband and I would never want to change that. What you and I had ended a long time ago."
"I know, and it's the same with me. I've found peace and contentment, and only once in a while do I think about what might have been."
"Goodbye, Noel. We have both done enough penance."
She kissed him lightly, got in her car, and drove away without looking back.