No, she did not.
“Nicole, this is Jeffrey Rodinov—”
“We’ve met,” she said shortly.
“Who works at the Sitka Palace,” her boss, Mike Freeborg, continued excitedly. A Minnesotan who had moved to Juneau fourteen years ago, Mike looked quite a bit like his Norwegian forebearers: large, broad-shouldered, blond hair, green eyes. The other guides called him The Viking. And although he looked fierce, he had the temperament of a pampered kitten. “And he asked for you personally.”
Nicole groaned again.
“Oh.” Mike shrugged his massive shoulders. “Well, anyway, show him a good time.”
“I will not.” She felt her face getting hot, which made her mad, which made her redder.
Oblivious, Mike continued. “Fill the boat—not that you’re taking the boat—so he goes back to the palace and tells them all about our little outfit here.”
“I quit,” Nicole said.
“You can’t quit,” her boss yawned, showing his back fillings. Nicole quit three or four times a month. “Sandra Dee’s coming back next month and she also asked for you personally. That was a five-hundred-dollar tip, right?”
“Then I’m on vacation effective this minute.”
“Ha! We both know you have no life at all. This job is your vacation.”
She cursed his perfect estimation of her character.
“Now get going.”
Nicole glared at the bodyguard, who smiled back. “Prepare for a day in the darkest depths of hell,” she informed him.
“Oh, I’m prepared,” he replied. “I’m bristling with weapons and pepper spray, not to mention my rape whistle.” Courteously, he opened the door for her. “After you, Nicole.”
J effrey landed the fish, deftly worked the hook out of its lower lip, and then tossed it back into the river.
Nicole was sitting beside him on the bank, her head in her hands. “You know how to fish,” she mumbled into her palms.
“Could be I went out a time or two with my dad,” he admitted, baiting the hook and casting again.
“And you sound like a local.”
“As local as you can get,” he admitted. “Russian on my dad’s side, Ekok on my mom’s.”
“That explains the blue eyes and the built-in tan. You’re sure as hell not a tourist. You don’t need me to take you out.”
“Maybe I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind since you shoved your gun into my head.” This, unfortunately, was nothing but the truth.
Nicole jerked her head up and glared at him. He froze, mesmerized by the Baranov blue eyes. Funny how he knew six other people with eyes that exact same shade, none of which had the same effect on him. “Very funny. You can go back and tell the king he’ll die of old age before I show up and get poked and prodded, and then play princess for him and those other weirdos.”
“Those other weirdos,” he said mildly, “are your family.”
“Maybe I’m lying. Maybe it’s a hoax.”
She jumped up and stomped her foot. “You don’t know. So don’t pretend blue eyes and dark hair is a ticket into the royal family. You’ve got blue eyes and dark hair.”
He yawned. “My family has been taking care of the royals for three generations. I know a Baranov when I see one. And so does the king.”
“The king,” she muttered, pacing back and forth on the bank. She cursed as she stepped into some mud, shook her foot, then nearly overbalanced into the river, and cursed more. Jeffrey listened with admiration; she knew swear words he didn’t, and he’d done a stretch in the AAF (Alaskan Air Force). “Did he tell you he cheated on his fiancée with my mom, and then dumped her to get married?”
“Lucky for you,” he pointed out.
She actually gurgled with rage and her hands snapped into fists. He faked a cough so she wouldn’t see him grin or hear him laugh.
“Do you always do that?” she demanded.
“Make unanswerable observations?”
“Only with you.”
“Oh, how romantic,” she mocked, fluttering her long black lashes. “It gets me right here.”
He certainly hoped so. Because she was really something. Gorgeous, mouthy, smart, knew her way around a fishing pole. Killer body…slim, but muscular; doing guide work kept her in good shape. Trim-hipped in blue jeans, a red T-shirt, and a bright blue windbreaker; the spring breeze had kissed roses into her cheeks and made her eyes sparkle. Or perhaps glitter with rage; it was hard to tell.
Jeffrey tried to understand why this particular Baranov had such an effect on him. He certainly hadn’t been attracted to Kathryn or Alex. Of course, he’d known them since they were kids. And God knew he wasn’t attracted to the king, or the other Alex. Of course, he wasn’t gay or bi. So why this one?
Because Nicole was different. She had royal blood in her veins but was raised by a commoner. The two of them against the world, no doubt. He doubted she had the slightest idea of the effect she had on men. Those magnetic blue eyes alone—
He felt a nibble, waited with the patience of a python, and then at a firmer bite set the hook and reeled it in, unhooked it, tossed it back into the river with a plop, and then baited his hook again.
“Plus you’re doing catch and release! You don’t even need me to clean them for you. There’s no reason for me to be here at all.”
“There’s every reason.”
“Oh, please, can we stop with the Obi-Wan speak? What’s your game plan, slick?”
“To charm you into coming back to the palace with me.”
“Why not? You had to know this would happen when you wrote what you wrote.”
“When I wrote what I wrote?” She stopped pacing and stared down at him. “You didn’t read it?”
“Of course not. And I would never ask. It was the king’s personal correspondence.”
“Oh. Uh, I didn’t think about it that way. That you didn’t—sorry,” she said, looking like the apology tasted bad. Again, he had to force a cough. “Well, I wrote him who I was, reminded him about my mom, left my phone number, and that was about it.”
“Well, as I said, you had to know there would be consequences.”
“It’s not like I had a choice, did I?”
“Your mother’s dying wish?”
“Now how did you know that?”
“Edmund Dante guessed, and the king confirmed. Mr. Dante is the man who has been leaving messages for you. He pretty much runs the palace, and the royal family.”
“Swell. He tries to run me and I’ll break both his ankles.”
“Tough to do from a riverbank.”
“Oh no you don’t! I’m wise to you, Mr. Bodyguard.”
Oh no you aren’t, sweetie.
“I have another bite,” he said smugly.
“And I,” she announced, “have a migraine.”
W ell! She handled yesterday pretty well, considering.
Considering the fact that she wondered what he looked like with his shirt off.
No, she did not.
Oh yes, you did, liar. Can’t you be honest with yourself ever?
“Shut up,” she snapped at herself. She occasionally had entire conversations with herself. Most of the time she attempted to keep them inside her brain.
But! She had handled him just fine. Refused to head back to the, God forbid, Sitka Palace. Sent him on his merry way. Ignored Freeborg’s insistence she give him a blow-by-blow recap. Drove home. Had McNuggets. Didn’t think about him once.
“Shut up!” she yowled, slamming on her brakes and wincing at what the spraying gravel was doing to her truck’s ruby red paint job. She shut it off, shoved the door open, fairly leaped to the ground, and then darted into the office.
“Nicole!” Freeborg yodeled when he saw her. “He’s back! And he brought—”
“I know who the crown prince is, Mike, Gawd.” She ignored Prince David Baranov’s outstretched hand and scowled. “Everybody who reads People or The Juneau Empire knows who he is. Got an overwhelming urge to fish, Prince David? Not enough protein up at the palace?”
“Actually, I need some food for my penguins, but that’s not why I’m here.”
“Well, don’t let the door hit you between the eyes on your way out.”
By reply, the prince turned to Jeffrey and said, “Uh-huh. I see what you mean.”
“Talk about me like I’m not here again and you’ll be a neutered crown prince. And then where would we be?”
“Nicole!” her boss screamed, horrified.
Prince David grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Jailable offense! Maybe a month or two behind bars will make the palace look like a better option.”
“Uh, Your Highness, she tends to go about heavily armed.” Jeffrey was nervously eyeing her windbreaker.
“What, ‘heavily’? It was a lousy .38.”
“Did you really get the drop on him? Dad said it, but it was still kind of hard to believe.” David jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Jeffrey. His eyes, the same shade as hers, twinkled at her. She wondered if he could make them do that on purpose. “He’s kind of got a reputation, y'know.”
“Uh—what’s going on?” her boss asked, the color leaking back into his face. He was glancing from her to the prince and back again. “Do you know His Highness?”
“But I know her,” Prince David said cheerfully. “Only by reputation, of course. So, what is it? Why won’t you come back? Hate needles? Doctor-o-phobic?”