“Yeah, you do that, Edmund darlin’.” The door closed behind Edmund and the Dragon grinned down at him. “Ain’t you glad to see me?”
His head jerked up off his desk and he scowled. “Hell, no! You’re fired. And banned! And fired. Go away or I’ll yell rape.”
“You’d never.” She plopped down in her usual seat. “I can’t believe you’re passing up the incredible opportunity I’m throwing in your kingly lap. You out of your mind, boy?”
“I haven’t been a boy since I was four. And complications like that, I do not need. Besides, I have to focus on Nicole. And David! Poor kid’s out of a job and he doesn’t know whether to shit or go blind. And Nicky. He’s been way too quiet lately; I don’t trust that budding psychopath. And—”
“Sounds like you’re takin’ care of ever’body, Al. ’Cept yourself, o’course.”
“Spare me your hideous brand of psychology.”
“Okey-dokey. How about I just plant another smacker on that kingly snoot?”
He actually cringed back. Her grin widened. Oh, this was gonna be fun. She’d held her feelings in for three years before realizing that was no way to catch the King of Alaska. Now he was going to pay for every soulful look she’d given him, every natural impulse she’d squashed, every time she’d betrayed her feelings.
“Please don’t molest me again,” he begged. “I can’t take any more this week. I absolutely can’t.”
“Then tell me about Nicole’s mama.”
“That’s blackmail, you horrible horrible thing!”
“A-yup. It’s also called getting the job done.” Impersonal as a secretary, she took out her notebook. “So, talk. You’re s’posed to be getting married. You take off. You go to a bar and order a drink. Or maybe your detail does. Either way, you meet the bartender. And…”
“And none of your damn business!”
“Did you put your big, smelly, fishy hands all over her boobs and make her moan like a donkey?”
“Stop it, stop it!” he screamed.
“Did you hit her with the old ‘hey, baby, mind if I knock you up with an illegitimate daughter’ line?”
He was actually banging his head on the desk. “Hate you. Hate you. Hate you.”
“Haw! You love me, Big Al. You just won’t admit it. Anyway, back to Nicole’s conception. When the condom broke, did you pretend you’d had a vasectomy? Or did you just—”
“Die! Die, die!”
She jotted it all down and managed to needle him for another ten minutes before he gave up and threw her out.
“D amn, Christina, you can cook! Here all I thought you were good for was throwing sucker punches.”
Christina, who had been starting to smile, changed tactics and frowned. Dara gurgled with joy as she watched the play of emotions on her mother’s face.
“Eat your applesauce,” she told her daughter. To Nicole, “F-U-C-K Y-O-U-R-S-E-L-F.”
“Mama, what’s fook yr lelf?”
“Never mind. Eat.”
“I told you,” David said, not bothering to hold back his laughter, “she’s already starting to read. Spelling out your colorful vocabulary will work for maybe another six months.”
“I can see all the parent–teacher conferences now,” Nicole teased. She forked in more linguine with clams—clams that had been in the ocean that very morning—and chased it with a glass of milk. “Your Highness, the littlest Highness called me a B-I-T-C-H today, and while I’m obliged to obey her, I feel she—”
“Oh, just stop,” Christina groaned, sitting back down. “You’re giving me a migraine.”
“Then my job here is done. Seriously, this is the best pasta I’ve ever had.” Christina and David waited for the follow-up insult.
“No, really. That’s all I was gonna say.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Thank you!” Dara sang, big blue eyes gleaming, applesauce drooling down her chin. She blotted it with her own napkin. “N’cole, are you going to live here forever?”
“I’m afraid so. I’m trapped, just like you.”
“We all are,” David assured her.
“Ow. Dara, you’ve got your mother’s lungs but, fortunately, your father’s intelligence.”
“Why did I invite her to dinner?” the princess asked the prince.
“Because essentially, you’re a good person.”
Christina sighed. “I was afraid that was why.”
A t ten o’clock that night came the long-awaited knock on his door.
Jeffrey didn’t get up to answer it. “Go back to the palace, Nicole!”
“I’m not letting you in, Nicole!”
Insistent pounding. He ignored it and sipped his milk. No Scotch tonight, by God. Once this week was enough. She’d eventually take the hint and go away. Find another lover. And he didn’t care. Not even remotely.
The knocking stopped and he gritted his teeth so he wouldn’t leap out of his chair, kick his own door down, haul her into his apartment by the hair, and do her on the living room carpet.
It had been a mistake. And he never made the same mistake twice. No matter how delectable. No matter how softly she moaned his name in his ear. No matter how—
He had decided she had taken the hint when the car battery crashed through the sliding glass doors leading to the back lawn.
“Hello,” Nicole said cheerfully, picking her way through the broken glass. “Did you know your neighbors have the most interesting garbage? I don’t think you’re supposed to put those in the garbage.”
“Freeze!” he roared, and she froze. Then he set down his milk glass, crunched across the glass, picked her up in his arms, and carried her to the glass-free zone. Then he set her down. Or tried to. The trouble was, she’d been kissing his ear while he carried her, and the throbbing between his legs told him he had about five seconds before he gave up the battle.
“Nicole, I never make the same—”
“I had to take care of myself with my fingers this morning,” she whispered into the ear she’d been kissing. “That’s how much I missed you.”
He ran with her into the bedroom.
T hey didn’t make it as far as the bed. They made it as far as the hallway. Then he lowered her to the carpet and commenced yanking her clothes off.
Nicole did her best to help, and supposed she should be frightened by his urgency, but the truth was, it thrilled her, warmed her to her toes and—and other places. It kindled her own lust, made her feel closer to him, closer to him than she had been with anybody. She’d had one-night stands. In college she had dated the same guy for a year and a half. In her twenties, the occasional dalliance or relationship doomed to fail.
But all of it together couldn’t equal the passion the two of them were generating in a cramped, dark hallway on a first-floor apartment in Juneau, Alaska, twenty-two miles from her ancestral home.
He pulled. She tugged. He yanked. She pressed. He kissed her again and again, her eyes, her throat, her breasts. She begged. He shoved. Then he was inside her, sliding in with sweet, delicious friction, and she came almost at once, bucking and jerking against him; then he was shuddering over her, and then he collapsed on top of her.
“Ulf,” she managed, before his weight drove all the air out of her lungs. Quietly suffocating, she beat him on the shoulder until he rolled off her with a groan. “Oh, sweet Jesus! I can breathe again!”
“Shut up,” he growled.
“Isn’t that ‘shut up, Your Highness’?” she teased.
“Not in my apartment. Here, it’s Nicole.”
“Finally, he unclenches!”
“Also, if you take another lover, I’ll kill him, then you, then myself.”
He pressed his palms to his eyes. She could see the sweat gleaming on his body, could smell his good clean smell, and wanted him all over again.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know if I hate you or love you.”
“Aw.” She snuggled against him. “Can’t you do both?”
“B ig Al! Where you been hiding all day?”
Holly had to stifle a laugh as she saw the Alaskan monarch flinch away from her. It felt like she’d been prowling around the palace half the night. The detail didn’t tell her shit; they viewed her as some sort of extra-annoying reporter.
“Get lost,” Al said rudely. “I got enough on my plate without you getting even more annoying. Which I didn’t think was possible, until this morning.”
“Rack ’em up,” she told him. “Bowling’s no fun for just one.”
So he did. And then he beat her ass so badly at bowling she fumed for ten minutes before challenging him to a rematch.
“Not now, Big Al, I’m lining up a split that will humiliate the Alaskan monarchy until the end of time.” She was holding up her bright purple bowling ball and measuring the distance. She let fly and knew the second the ball left her hand that it was good. She jumped up and down as the last four pins went over with a clatter, giving her the game. “Boo-ya! That’s what a good ole Texas whuppin’ feels like, Big Al.”
“Don’t remind me,” he said sullenly, marking down the score.
“That’s one for you and one for me.”
“Thanks, I can count.”
“You wanna go for the tie breaker? U. S. of A. versus Alaska, winner take all?”
He brightened. “What are the stakes?”
“Wellllll…tell you what. I win, I get to take you to bed.”
He reddened, but his blue eyes narrowed and he studied her with a look she had seen a thousand times from men of all ages. “And what do I get if I win?”