Fresh snow had fallen in the night, and as Farah looked from her window, she remembered how a white Christmas had always delighted Nicky and Megan. This year no one had been in the mood for a snow man, but now she thought it would be a good way to entertain the young folks after their months of toil under African sun.
So after breakfast, Nicky, Farah/Megan and the guests dressed in warm clothing and, amid much horseplay, built a snowman. That done, they threw snowballs, made angels in the snow, and waved at passing cars, until they were driven inside by the icy temperature.
Hack had stayed with Alexandra, and watching from a window they noticed again that a romance was building between Nicky and Tanya.
"I've never seen Nickolai so interested in a girl," Alexandra said. "A lot of girls have been interested in him, but I think he worries about whether they really like him or are dazzled by his title."
"Probably both," Hack said. "He's certainly attractive."
"Have you known Tanya long?"
"Long enough to know she's a very fine young woman. The fellows at the dig give her lots of attention but she treats them all alike. She's never dated any of them. Usually they go out together in groups. They always invite me, and sometimes I go along."
"Nicky's a little young for marriage, but it would solve a lot of problems if he did marry soon. For the country, I mean. Do you think I'm being selfish?"
"Not at all. I think it shows you're a true patriot. I'm proud of the way the three of you are handling your loss with such dignity. Even Megan. She seems to have grown up overnight."
"Yes. I'm very proud of her. And of Nicky."
"They come from very good stock," he said with a smile.
She wrinkled her nose at him.
"I don't know if I should mention this, Alexandra, and I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that underneath that brave facade Megan is really disturbed. Of course I know that losing both parents is a very traumatic experience, especially in such a manner, but every time I talk to her I feel she is holding something back, almost like keeping something at bay. Have you noticed anything like that?"
"Well, yes, but I considered it normal under the circumstances."
"I think you should keep your eye on her. She may need counseling to help her through this dreadful tragedy."
"You may be right. Each of us has been keeping up a brave front, trying to help each other through it, and doing our mourning in private. It's probably too much for a young girl. I'll watch her, and if I think she could benifit by counseling I'll certainly see that she gets it."
"I hope I'm wrong," he said, "but there's no use taking chances."
"You're a dear friend, Hack. Thank you for caring. It comes at a time when we all need it."
"Well," he said, patting her hand, "I see that Jeffrey seems to have taken a shine to her. Maybe a little romantic attention will bring her out of it."
"It seems to be doing wonders for Nicky."
"You know," he said, "I've never thought about it before, but the razzle-dazzle of a title must make it difficult for young people to distinguish between true love and ambition."
"That's the reason why marriages used to be arranged," she said. "Either way, sometimes they work out and sometimes they don't. My marriage was arranged, but I was one of the lucky ones, we really cared for each other."
"You know, of course, that I was in love with Farah." She nodded. "I didn't think I would ever marry, but when I met Stacie I thought we could be happy together. Truth was, she reminded me of Farah in many ways. But she wasn't Farah, and when she wanted me to choose between her and my work it was an easy choice." He brooded for awhile. "When Farah died, something inside me died, too."
"I'm glad you can talk about it," Alexandra said. "I knew you were hurting, but I couldn't intrude on your grief."
"Neither one of us had a family, and we had grown to depend on each other. When she married Michael, I was afraid she wouldn't need me in her life any more, but that didn't happen. She brought me into her new family, and enriched my life immeasurably."
"Just as you enriched ours. I've had very few close friends in my life, but I have cared for you as a brother ever since we met. A Younger brother, of course," she added with a smile.
"You honor me," he said. "Your friendship is very precious to me."
Their talk was interrupted by the return of the young people, who came in with pink cheeks and laughing faces. Nicky helped Tanya off with her wraps and Jeffrey did the same for "Megan." Seeing Valerie left to shift for herself, Hack, who had risen when they entered, helped her with her wraps and brought her hot coffee to drink. After poking the fire in the fireplace, he added another log, then joined Valerie who had gone to sit with Alexandra.
Not wanting to put her guests at a disadvantage, Alexandra had consulted Hack earlier about plans for dinner. Did he recommend a cozy informal dinner in her apartment, or had the guests looked forward to dining formally at the palace and brought suitable clothing?
"Formal, by all means," he said, "if it's not too much trouble. They are so thrilled at being here, we might as well give them what Farah would call the royal treatment. They even asked my opinion about what kind of formal clothing to bring."
Accordingly, Alexandra had ordered dinner to be served at eight in one of the smaller dining rooms of the palace. She dressed carefully in a grey chiffon gown (she was old fashioned enough to avoid bright colors during her period of mourning but drew the line at black), with a low neck and cap sleeves. Other than her diamond engagement ring and her wedding ring set with diamonds, which she had never ceased to wear, her only jewelry was a diamond necklace which nestled close around her throat.
Farah looked lovely in a full-skirted gown of pale blue, her only jewelry other than her watch being a diamond and pearl necklace.
A lustrous pink satin sheath displayed a stunning figure that Valerie's casual clothes had failed to reveal, and for the occasion she had waved and fluffed her short hair. Her only jewelry was a pair of golden hoops at her ears. Farah had the feeling that everyone in the room was reassessing her charms.
Tanya, too, wore blue, but a deeper shade that set off her blond hair and fair skin. Her tan ended at her shoulders, which were creamy white, and with her small waist she looked like a Dresden doll. Farah notice that even one of the serving men, who appeared to be in his early twenties, had trouble keeping his eyes off her.
The man wore black tuxedos with white ties, a uniform, thought Farah, guaranteed to make every man who wears one look imposing.
The romping in the fresh air had made the young people hungry, and they did justice to a traditional Christmas dinner..Not a traditional Zhad Christmas dinner, but one that had evolved over the years to include American dishes introduced by Farah, such as the turkey.
Alexandra stayed behind after dinner to thank the butler for the delicious food, the flawless service, and to hand him envelopes containing special bonuses for each of the servants who had stayed to help them entertain their guests. She also told him they could all take the following day off; she would take the guests out for dinner.
Back in the apartment they exchanged gifts, including some "gag" gifts thought up by Nicky andFarah, which were opened amid much laughter. The fresh air had induced sleepiness at an early hour, and soon they drifted off to bed.
For the first time since the tragedy, Farah didn't lie awake grieving but fell asleep at once.
After breakfast the next morning Hack and Farah took the visitors on a tour of the city, including a trip up to the site of the "dig" where Farah had worked a short time that fateful summer. They ended up eating a late lunch at the restaurant where Michael had taken Farah that day long ago when they first met.
The proprietor welcomed Hack as an old friend, curtsied to Farah, and saw to it that the service was excellant. After lingering over their meal, they went back to the palace. Alexandra had in the meantime made reservations for dinner in a private room at the leading hotel.
She answered their unspoken questions by saying offhandedly, "Of course it won't be necessary to dress formally tonight."
As one formal dress was all each girl possessed, they both looked relieved. They showed up for dinner in smartly styled dresses, and the men in business suits.
The inevitable security guards accompanied them to the hotel. They entered through a private enterance, took a private elevator to the second floor, and were ushered into the room by a waiting security guard. The table was set with priceless china, gold serving and eating utensils, and sparkling cut glass. A large centerpiece of fresh flowers decorated the table. A side table held bottles of liquor, with cavier and small crackers. All this seemed to awe the visitors even more than the palace had.
The hotel manager had offered to supply live musicians to play while they ate, but Alexandra vetoed that. The royal treatment needn't include that diversion, she decided.
"After today," she told the group, "the servants will all be back on duty, the holidays will be over, and things will be more informal for us."
"Great," said Hack. "A little royal treatment goes a long way."
This statement put everyone at ease, and the evening was lively and jolly.
For the second night in a row, Farah fell asleep almost at once.
Hack and his crew left in midweek, having arranged to stop in Paris for a couple days. Hack had promised to write Alexandra, Tanya promised to write Nicky, and Jeffrey promised to write Megan, but Farah noticed as they got in the car to leave that Jeffrey maneuvered Valerie into the back seat with him. That's one who has reassessed Valerie's charms, she thought, trying not to look amused.
The palace felt empty after they left. It had been a strain pretending to be Megan, and she was dismayed that she and Hack no longer had much contact. Of course he thought of her as Megan, much younger than he, and had accordingly shifted his friendship to Alexandra. She felt cut off from everyone. The visit had shown her how far removed she was from people of Megan's age.
Well, she would have to do something about that. The first thing she had to do was stop thinking of herself as Farah. She was Megan now, and she would think of herself as Megan. Otherwise she was bound to give herself away in one-on-one contact with Megan's girl friends. Not to mention her boyfriends. Fortunately, Megan hadn't settled on just one boyfriend yet, so there shouldn't be that problem to face. The imposture would be impossible, of course, without her total recall. She had listened to a lot of talk about Megan's friends and their activities, and that gave her an edge.
She lay awake a long time again that night and her dreams were troubled.
Tomorrow she would call Felice Rachel, who had been Megan's best friend, and invite her to lunch. They had seen each other briefly only twice since that dreadful day in June, before Felice went away to school in Paris. She would be home now for the Christmas holidays.