“She was lovely and sweet and funny, and you will watch your tone when you speak to me, Nicole.”
She almost took a step backward. He hadn’t been smiling. He hadn’t been fucking around. He had sounded like—well, like a king.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
The king cheered up instantly. “That’s all right. It’s been a weird week for everybody. So if you’ll just hop in the car, we can go back to the palace and—”
“No, King Alexander.”
“Bad idea,” Jeff said quietly at her left shoulder.
Without turning her head, she snarled, “Nobody hit your buzzer, Jeff.”
“Please don’t call me Jeff,” he whispered in her ear. Annoyingly, all the hairs on her left arm stiffened to attention, and she jerked her head away from his mouth.
The king coughed. “Uh, Nicole, I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot, but I wasn’t exactly asking.”
“I’m not going and I do not submit to your authority, sir.”
“Uh.” The king shot Jeff a look and coughed again. “You sort of don’t have a—”
“How quickly we forget, King Cheats-on-His-Fiancée. You might want to reread my letter. My mother and father were Alaskan citizens, but I was born in Los Angeles.”
The king scowled. “Dual citizenship.”
“Right-o.” Under Alaskan law, merely residing in Alaska did not mean you were a subject of the king. You needed to be Alaskan on both sides and born in the country. Any deviation resulted in dual citizenship, and the gentleman (or bastard princess) in question could claim the other country as her own. “So thanks for stopping by, ta-ta, so long, get lost.”
The king stood and, like Jeff, he went up and up and up. Of course, he was standing two steps above her, but still. She craned her head to glare up at him. “Go away now.”
“I don’t get it,” he complained.
“I’m not surprised. Mom didn’t like you for your keen intellect.”
The bodyguard actually flinched, but the king didn’t move. Instead, he scowled down at her. “I’m gonna let that one go by.”
His black brows caromed together and his eyes were dark blue slits. But she would not be intimidated! Well, not much.
“If you didn’t want to see me,” he bitched, “and you don’t want to come to the palace, why the hell did you write me that letter?”
“Because my mother asked me to. It was in her will. She told me about you and she asked me to get in touch, and that was all she asked.” And it was damn sure all she was going to do. “It was the only thing she ever asked of me in twenty years.”
“Oh.” Then, quietly, “I’m sorry about your mother. She was wonderful.”
Tears stung her eyes; on the whole, she preferred him kingly and commanding and generally acting like a jerk. “Go,” she said. “Please.”
The bodyguard—Jeff—reached under her trailer with a long arm and retrieved his gun. He gave her a look she couldn’t figure as the king thumped down her steps.
“Well,” the king said after an awkward pause.
“Good-bye,” she said.
Without another word, they left.
Nicole fumbled for her door, ran into the trailer, collapsed on the couch, and wept for fifteen minutes. Then she got up, walked to the bathroom, washed her face, and kicked a hole in the cupboard under the sink.
A lexander Baranov, descendant of Russian rebels who took a country for themselves, bounded into his office, with Jeff right on his heels. Edmund was spreading out various paperwork for him to sign, which on any other occasion would have dampened his mood and made him contemplate loading a shotgun.
“Good heavens,” Edmund said, eyeing the rumpled Jeff. For Edmund, that was the equivalent of “Holy hell!” “What happened to you, Jeffrey?”
“My kid,” Al couldn’t help bragging. “She got the drop on both of us.”
Edmund blinked slowly, like a gecko. This was the equivalent of anyone else yelling, “Oh my God!”
“My king, I remind you that we have yet to verify our own DNA testing and—”
“Yeah, yeah, but I’m telling you. She’s the spitting image of Alex and Kathryn. She’s got the Baranov blue eyes and the dark hair.” Al plopped into his chair as Jeff took up his position just inside the doorway. Al knew Jeff’s humiliation was a live thing, a stinging thing, and he would stay closer than usual until the sting wore off. Although he was pleased with Nicole, he felt for his proud bodyguard and made no comment when Jeff didn’t leave the office.
“Mouthy, too,” Al continued, trying not to grin and failing. “I didn’t see much of her mother in her, to tell the truth. But I know it like I know how to gut a salmon: Nicole Krenski is my daughter.”
“Pure poetry as usual, my king. May I meet her?”
“Uh.” Al glanced at Jeff, who remained a stone. “Well, she refused to come with us.”
Edmund, tidying still more paperwork, froze. This was the equivalent of anyone else yelling, “What the holy hell are you talking about?!?”
After a long silence, Edmund straightened and put his fingers together, Mr. Burns style. The only thing missing was a drawn-out “Ehhhxxxceleeent.”
Edmund took a breath and let it out. “She…refused?”
“But she cannot. She may be royalty, but she is also your subject, and as such, she—”
“Nope, dual citizenship.”
“Dual…ah.” Edmund tapped his long, skinny fingers together. “But if she refused to return with you, then why did she bother to—ah. Perhaps her mother asked her to? A, erm, dying wish, perhaps?”
“Right on the nose, Eddie.”
“Sire, if you call me that again I shall instantly tender my resignation, and then disembowel you.”
“He threatened the king,” Al told Jeff. “That’s worth prison time. My great granddaddy signed the bill himself.”
Jeff didn’t move, or speak. It was the rare week Edmund didn’t threaten to resign or slaughter the royal family, or both.
“God, what a kid,” Al continued, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. He sighed happily. “Got the drop on us, jammed that .38 in the back of Jeff’s head—”
There was the dull thud as Jeff banged the back of his head on the wall, his eyes closed. Politely, Al and Edmund ignored it.
“—sassed me like you wouldn’t believe, then kicked us off her property. It was unbelievably wonderful.”
“It, er, sounds unbelievably wonderful.”
Jeffrey banged his head again.
With a worried glance at the head of his detail, the king finished, “Nobody’s talked to me like that since Christina joined the family.”
“She certainly sounds like a Baranov,” Edmund admitted. “Sire, it is vital we verify her bloodline. You realize the ramifications.”
Al did. He wondered what his eldest son, David, would think about all this. What all the kids would think.
“D’ you think I should tell the kids now or wait until we have proof?”
Edmund hesitated. “My king, I would not presume to advise you on such a personal matter.”
Jeffrey made a strangled sound that he managed to turn into a cough; Al laughed outright. “Since when? You got a fever or something, Edmund?”
Jeff cleared his throat. It sounded like gravel in a blender. “Let me go back, Majesty.”
Surprised, Al glanced at his bodyguard. “What? Jeff? Did you hit your head too hard on the wall?”
“Sire, let me go back and try again.”
“Jeez, I dunno…I thought we’d give her a little space before trying again.”
“My king, you know that is unacceptable!” Edmund was as upset as Al had ever seen, and that was saying something. He had actually raised his voice. “We cannot let this sleeping dog lie!”
“Try to resist referring to my kid as a dog.”
“I require proof she is your kid, my king. And you know why. And you know we cannot delay.”
The king shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Yeah, but—”
“Sire, forgive the interruption, but let me go back,” Jeff urged. “First thing tomorrow. I’ll switch detail with Reynolds. I can do this. Please let me do this.”
“With all do respect, Jeffrey, if the king could not persuade her, I fail to see what—”
“Hush up, Edmund. Give me a second here.”
Al thought about it. The two men let him. Finally, he said, “I don’t see the harm. And if you’re willing, it’s fine by me, Jeff.”
“Thank you, sire.”
“Wait.” This time Edmund was thinking, and the two others let him. After a short silence, Edmund made a suggestion, showing his usual cool good sense, and Al instantly accepted the advice. Then he gave Jeff his instructions.
“My king,” Jeff acknowledged, and bowed. Then he did something Al had never seen him do: he grinned.
G ulping the last of her coffee, Nicole swung into the driveway of the Outer Banks Co. She was surprised to see a strange car beside her boss’s and the other guides’. She nearly always beat the clients in. Who’d bother showing up at 6:30 A.M. if they didn’t have to?
She hopped out of her truck, locked it, then crossed the damp lawn, enjoying the spring sunshine. Winter had a pretty good grip every year, but it always eased up, and she was always surprised when it happened. It was finally jacket weather, which meant in hot southern places like North Dakota it was shorts weather.
Spirits high, Nicole bounded up the steps and into her boss’s office.
“We meet again, Nicole,” the bodyguard told her. He was decked out for fishing—old jeans, faded flannel shirt, work boots. His curly black hair was rumpled, as if he’d spent the time waiting for her running his fingers through it. She wanted to run her fingers through it, to see if the texture was as silky as it looked.