She covered her eyes. “Please, Al. I’m begging you. We’re headed for overshare country.”


He laughed. He had a great laugh, booming and kingly. She looked up at him and smiled in spite of herself. Then took a closer look and lost her smile. “You look more than a little stressed. Is everything all right?”

“No, but it’s nothing for you to worry about. I called you up here for two things—thanks for coming so quickly, by the way. Thing one, how are you doing? Do you need anything? To put it another way—”

“Thanks, because English is my ninth language.”

“—shaddup—are you not getting something you need?”

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“The food’s great, everybody’s nice, I don’t need anything.”

“Because speaking of Sheldon, you might want to talk to him. The last thing that guy ever wanted was to be a prince. But he sucked it up. And you think Christina wanted to be the Queen of Alaska? Ever? You could learn a lot from those two weirdos.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.” She sipped her coffee.

“We were, ah, surprised when you didn’t dine with us.”

“I needed some time alone.” In fact, she’d skipped the dinner with Christina, too, and felt horribly guilty. Well, she’d track her down today and apologize.

She leaned forward, rattled by the hurt look in his eyes. That’s all she seemed to do these days: hurt the men in her life. “You gotta try to understand, Al. It was me and mom, and then it was me. I fish and hunt for a living. I like the quiet. I love the solitude. And here, I don’t have either. I didn’t think it was possible to feel claustrophobic in here, but I do. I really do.”

“Sweetie, how can we do better?”

“That’s a nice offer, but it’s me, not you guys. I’m the one who has to adjust. I’m the one who has to change. I wouldn’t have sat for the DNA test if I wasn’t reconciled to that. And none of it’s your fault.”

“It could be argued that all of it’s my fault.” She opened her mouth, but he rushed forward. “Nicole, I friggin’ hate seeing you unhappy.”

“Well, it’s not much fun on this end, either.” But she took the sting out of her words with a small grin. “You said you had two reasons.”

“Yeah, you’ve really got a gift. I’ve been reading some of the scripts you’ve—”

“No!” she practically screamed. Al reared back in his chair. “Oh, God, tell me, tell me you didn’t read any of the dreck I wrote for Hollywood.”

“But you saved a bunch of movies! Killing Cardinals had a totally different, sucky ending according to the trades. And you single-handedly rescued the dialogue for I’m Okay, You’re Insane.”

“It’s just to pay the bills, Al. It’s not art.”

“Well, I thought it was pretty nifty, swifty.”

“God, the humiliation never stops around here, does it?”

“Guess not. You know, if you ever thought about writing a book…”

A book. A fishing guide. Her mother’s story. Her story. Sure, she’d thought about it. But who had the time?

“You’re not implying I’d have all this leisure time to write, are you?”

“I’m just saying. If it’s something you wanted to do, there’s not much in your way. It’s not like you have to spend your creativity fixing other people’s words. Not anymore.”

She raised her eyebrows. “That’s…an interesting perspective.”

“I got tons of perspective,” he bragged. “I got it running out of me like…stuff that runs out of me. By the way, three American movie studios have called here looking for you. They want to buy the rights to your story.”

“Oh, sure. When I was a lonely hack they wouldn’t return my calls. Now they want to toss money at me and make a movie out of my life. Pass.” She rose from her seat. “Still, you’ve given me something to think about.”

“I’m good at shit like that,” he said, lacing his fingers beside his head. “G’wan, get out of here.”

“Later, Al.”

“Wait!” He was leaning forward in his chair and looking anxious. “Look first and tell me; is the Dragon out there?”

Nicole opened the door and checked both ends of the corridor, waving to the short bodyguard. Then she went back inside. “Coast is clear.”

“Great. I’m dying for some scrambled eggs. Had a conference call so I didn’t eat with the kids today.”

“Well.” She took a deep breath. “I haven’t eaten yet. We could eat together. Unless it’s a working breakfast or—”

“No no no! It’s not a working breakfast. Yeah, that’d be great. Come on, I’ll show you one of the prettiest rooms in the palace.”

“Don’t you have to sign bills into law or something?”

“Fuck it.”

“You’re an inspiration to us all,” she said dryly. “I assume this means that when I’m queen, I can constantly blow off my work.”

“What do I care? I’ll be worm food by then. Come on, let’s get out of here before Edmund brings me more work.”

“That bastard,” she agreed, and followed him out the door.

Chapter 42

T he king watched Nicole pick at her eggs and ham, and drink cup after cup of black coffee. Something was wrong, and he didn’t think it was just the events of her birthright coming to light.

No, it was something else.

“If you don’t like the eggs, we can get you something else.”

She forced a smile. “I’m just not very hungry, I guess.”

“Still, you gotta eat.”

“You were right,” she replied, obviously anxious to change the subject. “This is the prettiest room in the palace.”

“This” was a solarium on the east side, second floor. The entire east wall was one big window. It was warm in there even in the middle of January. It was one of the few rooms that didn’t have a fireplace. Thanks to the greenhouse effect, it didn’t need one.

“Yup. Used to do my homework in here when I was a kid.”

“It’s hard to picture you as a little boy,” she teased. “I bet you were more of a handful than Nicky is.”

Al groaned. “That kid is the punishment for all my sins. Karma’s a bitch, y’know?”

“You should write greeting cards. That’s quite a poetic touch.”

“Hey, we can’t all be professional writers-for-hire.”

“Mmm. Speaking of writers, what’d the Dragon do to freak you out? And didn’t you fire her?”

“I’ve fired her eleven times,” he said gloomily, still running hot and cold every time he remembered her mouth on his, her hands pressing his shoulders, her skirt riding up as she sat in his lap. “She keeps coming back.”

“Yeah, but you could make her stay away if you really wanted to.”

“Yeah, I—I suppose.”

“She likes you, you know.”

He stared at her.

She shrugged and forked up some egg. “Just sayin’.”

“I’m her project, not her—her—”

“Sorry, Al, I’m calling bullshit. You think she keeps coming back for the privilege of writing down your old war stories?”

“It doesn’t matter. We’re not talking about this. Besides, I—in my heart, I’m still married.”

“Queen Dara.”


“Do you—did you love her?”

“She was the first person I loved more than myself. And then she gave me amazing children. Even if I hated her, I’d honor her for that alone.”

“But, Al. It’s been so long. Fifteen years or so, right?”

“Give or take,” he admitted.

“Why do you want to be alone?”

“Why do you?”

He could see he’d shocked her with the observation. She stammered for a few seconds, then said, “It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s not?” he asked quietly.

“You can get married again. But in my whole life, I’ll only have one mother.” She bowed her head. “She knew me better than anyone. She could have gotten me through this. I’d give everything I had, and everything you have, just to talk to her one more time.”


“Oh, God, I just miss her so much!” she cried, and sobbed into her hands.

Al was out of his seat in half a second, patting her on the shoulder. “Nicole, honey, it gets easier, I promise it does. Not just adjusting to us. The grief. It won’t always be a killing thing. I swear to you, you’ll miss her forever, but eventually you’ll only think of the good, never the bad.”

She leaned against his hip. “It’s just so hard, Dad. I didn’t think it would be so hard.”

So he comforted her, as he had comforted the tears of all his children. And though Nicole never remembered the first time she called him Dad, the king never forgot.

Chapter 43

“T here you are, Big Al!”

The king’s hands jerked. Papers flew. “Gaaahhh!” he screamed.

“Don’t scream, my king, we only just got your office door fixed,” Edmund begged. He turned. “Good morning, Ms. Bragon. No, no, everything’s fine,” he told the out-of-breath bodyguard. “Thank you very much.” He shut the door. “Something to drink, Ms. Bragon? Coffee? Juice?”

“I’ll just drink in the sight of the glorious king of Alaska, if y’all don’t mind.”

Al rested his head on his desk.

“I don’t mind,” Edmund admitted, “but frankly I can’t imagine anyone being that thirsty. I’ll leave you to your work, ma’am. Sir.”

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