Christmas at the palace had always been a happy time, with a party on Christmas Eve for the children of the servants and gifts all around. The household staff received generous bonuses and, and except for a skeleton crew, the day off on Christmas Day, which Boris and Maria and Alexandra traditionally spent with Michael and his family.
This year these festivities were cancelled, Boris explaining that they wouldn't be seemly so soon after Maria's death.
"But you will come for dinner with us on Christmas Day, won't you?" Farah asked.
"I'll have to let you know," he said.
"Boris," Farah's voice was firm. "I know how much you loved Maria, we all did, and we miss her, too. But I know she would want you to go on living and coping. This country depends on you for guidance, and Maria's memory would be better served by your getting on with your life as best you can."
"I know, Farah, but I miss her so much." His eyes filled with tears.
Farah put her arms around him. "Have a good cry, Boris, get it out of your system. But don't shut the rest of us out."
"You're a real friend, Farah."
"Well, this friend is expecting you to spend Christmas Day with us as usual. Okay?"
"Okay." He was smiling as he wiped away his tears.
Farah rose early on Christmas morning and opened the drapes to check the weather. An evergreen growing in the yard had been decorated as a Christmas tree, and now snow as well as ornaments festooned its branches. Oh, good, a white Christmas, she thought, and went to rouse Nicky and Megan, who loved snow. Soon after breakfast they were out building a snowman.
The snow seemed to have raised Boris's spirits also. He and Alexandra arrived in midafternoon, bringing gifts, and the following hour was spent exchanging presents and oohing and ahing over what they received. After a traditional Christmas dinner, the rest of the evening was spent chatting and listening to Christmas carols.
The guests left early. As they waited for their car to be brought around, Farah said to Boris, "I'm so happy you came."
"So am I," he told her. "I'm glad we had that little talk the other day. I needed it, because Maria isn't here any more to set me straight."
Farah hugged him, and looking over his shoulder at Alexandra crossed her fingers.
In mid-January, Farah was scheduled to attend the opening of an important art exhibit. On hearing of this, Prince Andre asked if he might accompany her. She consented, although she would have preferred to go alone. Andre's acceptance by the family had not seemed to open many doors for him. That this was due to his often petulant and sometimes overbearing manner never seemed to occur to him; and once when he had taken offense at some imagined slight from Alexandra, he had complained to Farah.
They met at the entrance to the art gallery, and after the opening ceremonies, they mingled with the crowd for a short while, then were free to browse and look at the exhibit. Noticing that her companion seemed preoccupied, Farah said, "Is something bothering you, Andre?"
"Is there something bothering me, she asks!" There was anger in his voice. "She thinks I'm not good enough to be included in her Christmas party, and she asks is something bothering me."
"Andre, it wasn't a party. There was no one there except the immediate family."
"I was led to believe that I'M a member of the immediate family."
"Alexandra's immediate family, Andre. She didn't invite anyone else because she's worried about Boris. He's still grieving for Maria and we weren't sure he would come. No one else was invited."
"I'm sorry about Boris, but I turned down other invitations waiting to hear from you." In his agitation, his voice had risen.
"Keep your voice down," Farah said sharply.
A man and a woman standing nearby turned and looked at them, alarm on their faces. Recognizing Farah, the woman curtsied, then they both hurried away.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Andre said savagely, "How dare you talk to me like that!"
"Oh, cool it, Andre. This is no place to make a scene." With a grin she added, "Do you want to get us plastered on the covers of those nasty tabloids, with accompanying story about a lovers' quarrel?"
"Well, maybe I did get carried away." The anger was leaving his voice.
Farah patted his arm. "I get carried away myself sometimes."
"I apologize for making a scene." Andre was smiling but his voice was still stiff. "You've always been nice to me so I should have known there was a good reason why I was left out. I just wish I had been told."
"You're right, you should have been told, and I apologize for that." She looked around. "I've seen everything I want to see here. Shall we go?"
"I'm ready." He offered her his arm. His body against her arm was still rigid with anger, although his face was all smiles as they left.
Unfortunately, when the glow of Christmas wore off, Boris began to sink back into his gloom.
"I worry about him," Alexandra confided to Farah as she stared unseeing out the window of the car, her blue eyes troubled. They were on their way to the opening of a new day-care center for working mothers. "Here it is May and he's still refusing to go out socially."
"I know." Farah wished again that they weren't expected to wear hats on these occasions. "He seems to have lost the will to live."
"If only we knew how to bring him out of it," Alexandra said.
"Well, his birthday is coming up next month, and he surely won't refuse to attend his own birthday party. Michael and I were discussing it the other night, and we thought that instead of something elaborate, we would hang out around the pool in the afternoon and have a little dinner party afterwards. Just the family. Do you think he'll go for that?"
"I'll ask him. If he thinks I don't want to miss it (and I don't) perhaps he'll be willing to come."
Alexandra reported later that Boris had agreed. "He really seemed rather pleased," she told Farah. "I do hope that means he's coming out of his doldrums."
"I'll tell Michael, he'll be glad," Farah said. "I suppose we should invite Andre, since he made such a fuss about being left out at Christmas. Are you agreeable to that?"
Alexandra shrugged. "I don't think we have much choice. He is a big help to us."
Farah sighed. "I know. But I can't help feeling uneasy about him. That's the reason I've always thought it's better to make him feel wanted."
"Go ahead and invite him. But wait awhile. Maybe he'll get a better offer."
They laughed then and again later when Andre, to their surprise, sent regrets, saying he was taking a little vacation and would be out of the country on the date of the party.
A beautiful June day ushered in Boris's birthday. A light morning haze lifted by noon, and the weather was warm and clear. In a courtyard adjoining the house, sunlight sparkled on the water in the pool. Deck chairs and small tables had been arranged in the shade from the house, and a low bench was stacked with towels.
When Boris and Alexandra arrived about three o'clock in the afternoon, Farah was waiting in the house to greet them. Nicky and Megan were already in the pool. After a fast tennis match with Nicky, Michael was resting in one of the deck chairs. Hearing Boris and Alexandra arrive, he went inside to greet them, then both men changed into their bathing trunks and went outside.
"Aren't you going to swim?" Alexandra asked Farah.
"I thought I'd just visit with you." Farah knew that Alexandra never went swimming except when she was entirely alone.
"You needn't stay here with me when it's such a good day for a dip. Anyway, I thought maybe I could lie down for awhile. I had a bad night and didn't get much sleep."
"Of course. You can use one of the guest rooms."
They went upstairs, Farah leading the way, and after Alexandra was settled Farah changed to a bathing suit and went down to join the others.
Megan and Nicky had been racing each other across the pool, Nicky usually winning. As Megan got out of the water, she said to Farah, "I like your new bathing suit. In fact, I like it so much I got one just like it." She stood up, water dripping, wearing an identical suit, a rather scanty white one-piece model showing a lot of thigh.
"I was afraid it was too young for me," FArah said with a laugh. "Now I know it is."
"On the contrary, it's perfect for you," Michael said, beside her, "but too sophisticated for my little girl."
"Oh, Daddy, don't call me that!" Megan made a face at him and dove back into the pool.
Nicky, who had been looking at his mother approvingly, said, "Give me a head start and I'll race you."
"Why should I give you a head start?"
"It's a well known fact that a person can swim better with little or no clothes on." He grinned.
"I've got more clothes on than you," Farah said and jumped in beside him. With Michael watching, they took their places at one end of the pool. At a signal from Megan, they plunged away from the starting point.
Farah was certain she could outdistance Nicky in any race, but she had been careful never to do so because she knew her strength was one of the results of Jason's experiment on her, a secret she was careful never to expose. But today she felt reckless (it must be the suit, she thought) and also felt a need to beat him. She shot away so fast that he had no hope of overtaking her, and was still several feet from the other side when she passed him going back.
The triumphant smile on her face as she waited for him to finish faded when she saw how crestfallen he looked.
"You're a little out of form today, aren't you, honey?" she said. "I think that's the first time since you were a tot that I've been able to beat you."
He looked at her strangely. "You must have been practicing," was all he said.
"That wore me out," Farah said falsely, as she climbed out of the water. After sitting awhile to dry off, she crossed to a table in the shade where soft drinks were cooling in a bucket of ice. She collected a coke, then a magazine from an adjacent table, pulled up a deck chair and curled up in the chair with her back to the pool. From where the others were grouped she was not visible.
Megan and Nicky rubbed suntan lotion on each others' backs, then stretched out on their stomachs in the sun. Michael and Boris stood on the other side of the pool, deep in conversation.
"Where did Mom go?" Farah heard Megan ask.
"She's over there in a chair with her back to us, gloating over clobbering me in the race," Nicky replied. "I didn't know the old gal had it in her."
"Neither did I," Megan said. "At her age!"
Wouldn't they be surprised if they knew how old I really am, Farah thought, and again felt dismay that so many things about her had to be kept secret forever, even from her family.
Time passed slowly for the two men in the guardhouse. After the attempt on Boris's life four years earlier, Michael had the property surrounded by a brick wall with iron gates and a guardhouse. The peace of the countryside was seldom disturbed, and the guards had time on their hands. They tried to fill it by playing games as chess, checkers and scrabble, by telling each other tall tales, and by snacking and reading.
The pay was good but they were bored, and in time became lax in their duties. Most of the visitors who passed through the gates were known to them. Strangers were admitted after the merest scrutiny, and permission to enter granted by almost anyone at the house who answered the phone when the guards called for approval.
The limousine that pulled up that afternoon was driven by a foreign looking man in a chauffeur's uniform. He got out and approached the window, cap in hand, his right hand punching the inside of the cap as if ridding it of dents. The younger guard got up and leaned on the window sill with both hands in view. The other man was pondering a chess move and didn't look up.
"What can I do for you?" the guard at the window asked lazily.
The hand punching the cap came out holding a small gun, with which the chauffeur shot the guard at the window. Then he shot the man at the table. The keys to the guardhouse were hanging in plain sight and easy reach. He used the keys to get inside and open the gate. Then he slashed the communication wires, got back in the limo and drove up the paved entrance. He stopped where the road curved around a stand of trees which screened the car from vies.
Two men carrying guns, plus the chauffeur, piled out and darted from tree to tree to avoid being seen. Their destination appeared to be the courtyard. The trees ended about thirty feet from the house. At a signal from the leader, the three man ran across the open space and burst into the courtyard, spraying bullets as they went. In a matter of minutes they were back outside, fleeing to their car.
At the sound of shots, Boris's guards, who accompanied him everywhere since the attempt on his life, erupted from the house and pursued the assassins, shooting as they ran.
The sound of gunfire roused Farah from a nap. Sleepily, she thought someone was playing a radio very loud. Then she heard shouts and the sound of running. She suppressed her impulse to spring from the chair. As the sounds of pursuit faded, she jumped up and looked around.
The shock of what she saw was like a blow to the stomach, and she struggled for breath. I must go to them, she whispered. She knelt by Michael, who was nearest. He lay face up, his eyes wide open in surprise, his body riddled with bullets. Moving like an automaton, Farah closed his eyes and kissed his lids, her tears falling on his face, her heart pounding against her ribs. Who was doing all that screaming? she wondered. She wished it would stop.
As she bent over Boris, the screaming escalated, and she realized it was coming from her. Boris was lying in his own blood. It oozed from his head, his chest, his abdomen.
I've got to be dreaming this, she thought. Her legs wouldn't support her, so she crawled on her hands and knees to Nicky. Darling Nicky, her firstborn. Blood poured from his shoulder, his chest, his stomach. She pressed her cheek against his in an agony of weeping.
Then she bent over Megan. A bullet had shattered the top of her head and blood from a hole in her chest was staining her swimsuit.
She stopped screaming. Why, this is only a dream, she told herself. It has to be a dream. Things like this don't happen to Donna Harris. Well, of course, she thought, I'm Donna Harris. All this other has been one of my daydreams. None of it happened, not Jason, not Noel not Kevin. She shuddered. Not a dream, a nightmare. Yes, a nightmare, and I'll wake up soon and Daddy will be calling and I, Donna Harris, will go to see what he wants.
She looked around wildly and saw sunlight glinting on Megan's school ring, which she always wore on her left ring finger. There is something I must do, she thought, and moving like a zombie, she stripped from her hand, her wedding and engagement rings and replaced them with Megan's ring. Then she slipped her own rings on Megan's finger.
Suddenly Alexandra dropped to her knees beside her. Farah had not heard her coming because Alexandra had not stopped to put on her shoes. Sobbing, she bent over and fumbled with something at Megan's neck. Then she held her bloody hand out to Farah and opened it to reveal the necklace Megan had been wearing.
"Here's your necklace," she said, ". . . Megan."
The shock cleared Farah's mind, and the two women looked at each other in total comprehension. If all the heirs were dead, their country would revert to France. Only if Farah could pose successfully as Megan, could it be saved.
Farah took the necklace and with trembling fingers clasped it around her own neck. Then she collapsed in Alexandra's arms, sobbing uncontrollably.