“Morning Dad.” Arosa said as she set a bowl of oatmeal in front of Wendel Carter and kissed his balding head. She walked to the stairs. “Lila, hurry up! You’ll be late for school.”
“I don’t like oatmeal.” Wendel complained, grumpily.
“High cholesterol gets you oatmeal for breakfast.” Arosa said as she stepped back to the refrigerator to pour Lila a glass of orange juice. She paused when she realized the man was staring at her. “What?”
“Best thing I ever did, adopting you and Lila. Even if you treat me like a doddering old fool.” He smiled. Arosa thought that deserved another kiss and she planted one on his forehead this time as she set down the orange juice for Lila. She stuck her head out the back door.
“Barten!” She shouted at the apartment above the garage. She did not see Barten’s pick-up. “Dad?” She asked, turning.
Wendel was in mid bite. “Mmm.” He swallowed quickly. “Barten said he had to get some things done at the High School so he could be free to act as custodian for the Middle School party this evening. He left extra early.”
Arosa nodded, but her mind had already moved on to the next issue. She was back at the foot of the stairs. “Lila!”
“I’ll be right down, Mom.” Lila shouted back. “Sheesh!” She said to herself. She took off the blue top for the second time and put on the lavender one. Mom didn’t like the lavender one. She said it was too revealing, but Lila was thirteen and she decided she could make her own decisions. She looked at herself in the mirror, and then slipped on a sweater. Sometimes it got cool the last day in October, even in Browning, Georgia; so she justified the sweater and skipped down the stairs.
“Thirteen, going on thirty.” Arosa breathed while her daughter smiled as if she did not have a care in the world.
“All posh.” Wendel said.
“Morning Grandpa.” Lila kissed his balding spot. In many ways, including her beauty, Lila was very much like her mother, though neither would admit it. Lila sat and sipped her juice.
“The purple top?” Arosa noticed despite the sweater. Lila ignored her.
“You going out with Mister Correll tonight?” Lila asked, changing the subject.
Arosa frowned but said no more about the top. “Yes. But I’ll be back at the school before the dance is over.” She promised.
Lila looked at her Grandfather who looked back at her and grinned. “Oh, I don’t know about that guy.” Lila and her Grandfather more or less spoke together. It was the phrase Arosa was using lately whenever Lila appeared to show interest in a young man, not that Lila was really interested in anyone, yet.
Arosa looked at them with steel in her eyes. “David Correll is a nice gentleman.” She said. “Besides, I’m thirty-two, not thirteen.” She tweaked her daughter’s nose. “And I’m not exactly the young girl, lost and alone in a strange land anymore.” She added that for Wendel.
“What do I know?” Wendel stood, his oatmeal unfinished. “I just live here.” He went for his briefcase, which he had left in the living room.
“And you, young lady. Ride to school?” Arosa asked while she emptied Wendel’s dish and set it in the dishwasher.
Lila shook her head. “Ginger and Jennifer will be by any minute. We’re walking”
“All right.” Arosa said as she picked up her own briefcase and followed Wendel out the front door. “Don’t forget to lock up.” She shouted back as Lila waved and watched the two cars leave the driveway. Ginger and Jennifer came moments later, and Morgan was with them.
“Did your mom give you any answers for the science test?” Morgan asked.
“She’s the school librarian.” Lila responded with a touch of sarcasm in her voice. “Not the science guy.”
“Only Mister Gross would have a test on Halloween.” Jennifer complained.
Morgan was shrugging. “It was worth a try.”
“How about your Grandpa?” Ginger asked hopefully, but Lila just did the eye roll and shake of the head for an answer.
“Where’s Mary?” Lila asked, as if she didn’t know.
“Walking with Eddie.” Jennifer grinned and someone giggled, and they left, all talking at once so anyone would wonder how they ever heard each other. Lila forgot to lock the door, but it was a small town in the middle of Georgia.
Arosa pulled up to the light with her mind in another world. Perhaps it was her comment about no longer being a stranger in this strange land that triggered it. That and her date that evening, she told herself. She was remembering her first husband, Lila’s father, not that she had any such ideas about David. She furrowed her brow as the light changed.
Prince Dunovan had been a great man. She remembered how she felt at seventeen when they stood before the Priest on her wedding day. Dunovan looked so tall so strong, and so intimidatingly handsome. She remembered turning to her mother and father, the King and Queen of Nova, but all she saw in her father’s eyes was joy and pride, and her mother was crying. Arosa imagined she might cry if Lila married.
She looked again at the Prince. “I promise my fidelity and devotion.” He said. Could she ask for more? She looked to the Queen Mother, Callista, but the woman was stoic, as always. Would Callista like her? It was important to Arosa that Callista like her, but she did not expect it given the cool way the woman had treated her up to that point. And Dunovan’s father? He had died some five years earlier. Dunovan was formally King of Truscas. Would she manage as Queen?
“Arosa.” Dunovan spoke to her softly. She did manage to look into his eyes, and she found welcome there.
“And I will respect you, my husband.” She said, but in her heart she hoped, nay, begged to be able to love him, and be loved by him. That was the one thing she wanted. But thus it had been for ages; that the noble Lord and Lady should wed in a political union, bringing all of the lands and cities of the Bellican Coast closer for a generation. Nova and Truscas would be united, now, in mutual support and succor, as the Priest called it. And she would play her part.
Arosa sniffed as she got out of her car and headed for the Middle School library. She had loved Dunovan indeed, even if it had only been for such a short time.
Barten-Cur was in his pick-up, headed for the hardware store. Stall three in the first floor girl’s room needed some real work. Lady Arosa and Mister Carter had been reluctant to let him get a driver’s license at first, but he showed them. He was a better driver and more respectful of the law than half of the natives on the roads, and that was a fact.
Something came from the woods beside the road and Barten-Cur screeched to a halt. It was a man. While that would have gone by without notice under other circumstances, this one was different. Barten-Cur could not exactly place the uniform, though he guessed it was Truscan, but this man was definitely a soldier. There was no doubt about that. And the man was staring at him.
There was a honk! Someone was behind him, and the soldier turned and trotted back into the woods Barten-Cur started driving again, but he hardly knew what to think. If they were Truscan, that might be bad enough, but if they came on behalf of the Empire, there could be real trouble. Princess Arosa had to be told at once, he thought, but he shouldn’t bother her at work. He had been reprimanded for that over and over. And she had a date tonight with Mister Correll, the High School Principal, as well. It would not do to interrupt her date. No, no, Barten thought. He would have to try and catch her in between work and going out. He hoped he would remember to get to her in time. If not, what could he do? He had to look out for Lila, above all.