Daniel seemed to have forgotten about nearly kissing me, and I was relieved. I wasn't sure I could handle any more of his playful attempts to romance me. Daniel never seemed the least bit bothered by the fact that he was leaving soon, happily mentioning things we should do "sometime", as if he kept forgetting that he wouldn't be here. After two months of being together every day, it seemed the least he could do would be to miss me a little. But then again, his way was probably wiser - a nice clean break, no messy emotions. It's like the old saying, a sharp knife cuts fast and bleeds... well, more. Or something like that.
The week went on as always until that Friday morning, when his call for breakfast lacked the usual teasing about dragging me out of bed. When I arrived, he was sitting at the kitchen table, idly toying with the salt shaker. I took a quick look around the kitchen; nothing was set out. "Good morning, Prince Charming," I said with a cheerful smile. "What are you making me today?"
"Your choice," he said, without looking up. "I'm not very hungry."
I spun the other chair around and sat down straddling it. His eyes rose and surveyed my position, then went back to what he was doing. I sat and watched him for a minute. "Daniel?"
I waited, and finally he looked up at me. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"And I'm supposed to believe that?"
He gave the salt shaker another nudge with his fingertip, then pushed it aside and leaned back in his chair with a weary sigh. "Fix me, Sarah."
"What do you mean, fix me?"
"You always make me feel better. So fix me."
I'd never seen Daniel this discontented. "No pressure," I said dryly. "Fix everything, Sarah. Help me cook, make me laugh, make my world a better place." I stood. "Get up, Daniel-san."
He frowned. "Daniel-san?"
"Name that movie, Mr. Film Expert. And I think you should make me toad-in-the-hole." He got up reluctantly from his chair and got out the eggs, and I slid him the bread and got up onto the counter. "Well? What's the movie?"
"I don't know."
"You're not even going to try?"
The suddenness of his reaction startled me. He whipped around, egg in hand, and threw it hard against the far wall. As it slowly slid downward, he stood there watching it, his breathing fast and ragged.
"Nice work," I said brightly. "Do it again."
"Dammit, Sarah," he growled.
"Potty-mouth," I shot back, seeing that he was close to breaking and just needing someone to push him a little. "Swear at me some more, Your Highness. I know you want to."
"To hell with you."
I cupped a hand around my ear and leaned forward. "What was that? Didn't hear you."
"To hell with you!" He turned on me, his face reddening. "My father called this morning, on his way to the hospital. Did you know he's having an operation today? I didn't." He grabbed a second egg and sent it flying after the first, and now there were two trails of yellow slime oozing down the wall. "And do I get to be there? No!"
He picked up a third egg and rolled it in his fingers. "Andrew's there. Even Madelyn's going to be there. But he won't send a car for me. He says it's nothing, he says I need to stay here and finish what I started. And I can't exactly walk all the way to Esher, can I?" He cocked his arm back and a second later the third egg smashed beside the others and started its slow slide to the floor. "To hell with this stupid tradition! To hell with your stupid toad-in-the-hole, and to hell with you!" He grabbed the carton of eggs and flung it after the others. I handed him the bread and he threw it too. Next went the spatula, then the butter and when he turned around for more ammunition, I held out my arms instead. He came into them and clung to me, burrowing his face into my neck.
"I'm sorry," he whispered miserably.
"It's okay," I soothed him, cradling him against me.
"I didn't mean it."
"I know, you're just scared about your dad. I would be too."
He drew a shuddery breath, then let it out. "You're never scared."
"Are you kidding?" I exclaimed, gently rubbing his shoulders. "I'm scared of all kinds of things. In fact, I was scared to death of you at first."
"Of course I was." His stranglehold on me was beginning to loosen, I noticed, so I kept talking and rubbing as if we did this every morning. "I thought you would be this horrible, rude, demanding tyrant. And it turns out you're not a tyrant at all." I paused for dramatic effect. "You're only rude and demanding."
I heard him chuckle softly, probably for my benefit, but it was still progress.
"Oh, and messy. What is it with you and eggs anyway?"
He tightened his arms around me in a gentle squeeze and then stepped back, but kept his arms around my waist and gave me a shy smile. "I don't know. You make me want to break things."
"Now there's a good job reference. 'Destruction follows her wherever she goes'."
He laughed softly and leaned closer, pressing a gentle kiss to my forehead. "I am sorry," he repeated, his lips brushing my skin as he rested against me a moment longer, then pushed away. "Forgive me?"
"I will when you feed me."
"I hope you don't want eggs," he sighed wearily, looking over his shoulder at the mess on the floor.
"I think we should go out for breakfast," I suggested. That seemed to cheer him a bit, but then he frowned again.
"How much does it cost?"
I chuckled at the new, budget-conscious Daniel. "My treat," I reassured him.
We went to the diner, which is the only option in Henley for breakfast, and I pretended I didn't see the looks people gave each other when we came in together so early in the morning. Daniel was too upset to notice, and I cared more about him than I did about any old rumors. We took a booth near the back, ordered two specials, and we talked about his father as we ate, which seemed to help. He told story after story, and his descriptions and memories gave me the image of a completely different man than the King I'd seen in the papers or the news reports. I very nearly said that I would like to meet him someday, but caught myself in time. I knew if I said it that Daniel would hold me to it, and I wasn't sure I was quite brave enough to go through with it.
After breakfast, I walked with him to the dock road and sent him off with a reminder to 'hurry home, dear'. He smiled half-heartedly as he left me, and I knew he would still worry all day. I walked home and now I was worried too, both about Daniel and about the King. What if it the operation was more serious than he'd let on? How would Daniel handle his father being ill, or worse? I'd lost my only parent and I didn't want that for him.
I spent the morning cleaning the mess in the kitchen, but the stubborn egg stains on the wall wouldn't budge with any cleaner I tried. So I headed into the village to ask Ruthie for tips and nearly walked into Lew, who was watering the geraniums in the mercantile's window boxes.
"That was a close one, love," he greeted me with a steadying hand on my arm. "Head in the clouds today?"
"A little," I admitted.
"Sort of. I guess you could say I'm worrying about someone else's worries."
"A body has enough of their own without taking on others'," he reminded me.
"I know. I just wish I could help, but there's nothing to do."
"Sometimes the best help is not to worry."
"Easier said than done," I smiled. "What should I do then?"
He thought for a moment. "Play."
Lew nodded. "If you're playing, you can't be worrying, can you?"
I looked up at the large glass windows of the mercantile, remembering when I'd brought Daniel for boots, and smiled at the birth of an idea. "I think I'll pick up a thing or two inside if that's all right."
"If you need help, you know where I am."
"You've helped already," I told him sincerely and headed inside.
That evening I was bold and waited for Daniel on his front steps. When he spotted me his pleased smile was nice to see. "Hello, grubby man," I called out as he came up the walk.
"Hello, pretty lady. What are you doing here?"
I ignored the compliment, knowing how easily such charm came to him. "You're going to call about your dad, then we're making poor-man's cordon bleu, and then I have a present for you."
"A present?" He lowered himself onto the step beside me. "What for?"
"A long overdue challenge."
"Uh-oh." He leaned heavily against my arm and I pushed him off.
"Get off. You're stinky."
"Well, you smell wonderful," he grinned, nuzzling his face against my shoulder and sniffing my neck.
"You're such a flirt," I retorted, pushing him away once again. "Are you going to call first or shower first?"
"Call first," he said decisively, and got to his feet and headed up the steps. When I didn't follow, he looked back at me. "Aren't you coming?"
"I thought you might want some privacy."
He came back down the steps he'd just climbed and pulled me to my feet. "No, what I want is some moral support. Come on, Canadian." So I let him pull me into the kitchen and busied myself getting out ingredients for our dinner while he called the hospital and went through the ordeal of proving himself to be The Real Prince Daniel. Finally he was connected with the King's room, and I could see his whole body relax when he heard his father's voice.
"So it's all done then, you get to leave in the morning," I heard him say after they'd chatted for a while, and when I looked his way he gave me a happy grin and a thumbs up. "You'll take it easy, though, right?" He laughed at his father's response, then said "Love you, dad," and hung up the phone.
"He's all right," he reported with relief. "Tired, though, and I suspect he's a bit drugged up at the moment. He called me David when we said goodbye." Daniel put his arms around me and hugged me close. I knew he'd been on emotional overload all day so I hugged him back, glad to share in his good news, but forced myself not to get comfortable in his arms. It would have been easier if he hadn't seemed so content himself, holding me for far longer than just a moment, his hand lightly stroking my back.
"Daniel," I said finally.
"You shouldn't be hugging the help," I joked.
Daniel backed off with a frown. "You're not the help."
"Of course I am." I picked up the package of chicken breast and waved it at him. "See? Dinner. Cooking." I put on a silly German accent. "Ich bin hier to help."
He took the chicken and pointed it at me. "Fine, but you're still not the help."
We cooked and cleaned up, as always, and in the middle of the dishes that Daniel stopped, turned around and surveyed the floor, and then scowled accusingly at me. "What?" I asked.
"The mess. You weren't supposed to clean it."
"No, I should leave it there to fossilize," I said sarcastically.
"But you're cheating," he argued. "I'm supposed to do it."
"Fine. This time I'll throw the eggs, and you can figure out what will take out the stains and scrub your little heart out."
"Sure you will."
He laughed and handed me the last dish to dry. When I'd put it away, I turned to see Daniel standing there with an expectant smile on his face. "I'm ready for my present now," he announced.
"You don't forget a thing, do you?"
I went to the hall closet where I'd stashed my purchases, and turned to find him close behind me.
"Tennis racquets?" he exclaimed at the two colorful racquets in my hand.
"And balls." I held up the bag of ten. "I believe you once offered to teach me to play."
"And got in trouble for it, too," he pointed out.
"So, if you don't have plans for tonight..." I hinted.
"Oh, but I do." He took one of the racquets and gave it a practice swing, then grinned at me. "And so do you."
I flung a weary arm over Sarah's shoulders as we left the court nearly two hours later. "All right, so you can play," I allowed.
"Play well," she prompted.
"For a girl," I teased right back, and barely dodged the poking finger she aimed at my ribs. The move had also functioned to extricate her from my arm, and I knew she'd probably done it on purpose. Sarah had always been shy about touching me, which is why I'd made the most of the hug she'd allowed me before dinner. I took her racquet and let her carry the balls as we started down the lane toward home. "Can we play again tomorrow?"
"Why not?" she answered. "After all, it's not whether you win or lose."
"But?" I prompted. She just looked at me blankly, and I burst out laughing. "Never mind."
"Why are you laughing?"
"Because I'm happy, and because I beat you two sets to one. You can call me Superman." I flexed my biceps, showing off the muscle definition that still surprised me every time I looked in the mirror. Working the docks had some unexpected benefits.
"Let's see yours."
She imitated my macho pose, and I laughed again. "You're silly," I told her. "I like you when you're silly." We turned a corner, our steps matching perfectly. "Actually," I ventured, "I pretty much like you all the time."
She gave me a sarcastic little bow. "Thank you, Your Highness."
"I'm not kidding, Sarah."
She sighed. "You don't have to flirt with me, Daniel. I like you too."
Now she hesitated. "But don't try to make me think it's anything more than that."
I got in front of her and turned around, walking backward so I could see her face. "Do you?"
"Do I what?" she frowned.
"Do you think it could be more than that?"
"No." Her abrupt answer brought my feet to a halt, and she went around me. I hurried and caught up, falling into step with her again.
"Not even a little?"
"Because I do. In fact, I've been wondering if we - "
"Don't." This time she was the one who stopped, and I stopped beside her. "You're leaving in a week."
"Nine days." Either way, I didn't like the sound of it. "But we'll still see each other, won't we?"
She laughed softly, not meeting my eyes. "That won't happen, Daniel, and you know it as well as I do. You have a whole other life to go back to. Soon enough you won't even remember my name. I'll just be that girl that taught you to do things you no longer know how to do because you've forgotten them too."
"That's not true."
"It is true. And it's fine." She took a deep breath, then looked up at me. "Let's just walk, okay?"
"But I - "
I didn't want to leave things hanging like that, but she looked so vulnerable, almost as if she were afraid of what I might say next, that I swallowed all the arguments that were ready to burst inside of me. We started walking again, and I could see my hopes shriveling to dust. Only nine more days of Sarah in my life.
Sometimes I don't like being me.