“Oh, I know, King Grumpy. But I’m baaaaack!”
E dmund was still smiling as he drove to his family’s summer home fifty miles outside Juneau. His duty was a never-ending joy…especially on days like today.
The story of the fistfight had been amazing enough. Really, the entire Krenski/Baranov saga had been amazing enough. But the look on the king’s face when Miss Holly made her ill-timed return was worth a whole month of “Eddies.”
Off-duty, as he was now, he normally stayed in his rooms at the palace. But spring was here, and it was time to do his annual check on his grandfather’s home to get it ready for summer.
Not that he made much use of it himself, but his dear sister would require it for much of the summer, and he wanted it in tip-top shape for her.
She would also be a frequent guest at the palace, where all the children were fond of her. (Must stop thinking of them as children, a voice in the back of his brain whispered for the hundredth time. His Highness the Crown Prince is thirty-four!)
A lovely, charming woman in her fifties with Down syndrome, Edmund’s sister greeted the annual house’s opening with the unbridled delight of a precocious child.
He would die for her. And if she understood death, Geraldine would have died for him. Since he expected to precede her in death by some time (she had been a late-in-life baby for his parents, a true Lost Boy who had never grown up), he had made generous arrangements for her care as long as she lived.
And if he hadn’t been able to do this thing, the king, with typical generosity (while claiming to be heartless and indifferent), had assured him many times that Geraldine would never have to worry about paying bills or cooking meals.
No matter when he passed on (hopefully via a brain aneurysm while scolding one of his beloved Baranovs), Geraldine would want for nothing.
To his surprise, as he drove up the long, tree-lined driveway, he saw another parked car. He hit the high beams and saw someone waiting for him on the wrap-around porch. In all his years of service, that had never happened.
His chest tightened; he prayed nothing had gone seriously wrong at the palace. Please no one is sick or hurt. Please no one is sick or hurt. Please no one—
He nearly leaped out of his car and ran to the porch—not much fun at his age—and his heart rate slowed dramatically when he saw who it was.
“Good evening, Miss Krenski,” he tried not to gasp. “I trust you are well.”
Chin in her hand, she squinted up at him. “You okay, slick? You’re not gonna keel over on me, are you?”
“How’d you know who I was?”
“Who else could you be?” he said warmly. “And it grieves me to point out you have not answered me. Are you quite well, Miss Krenski? No ill effects after this afternoon’s, ah, misunderstanding?”
“Well, I’ve had a bitch of a headache all damn day, and the next time I see the crown princess it is awwwwn. Oh, and I’m gonna be the next fucking Queen of fucking Alaska. Other than that, I’m great.”
After decades of practice, Edmund had the best poker face on the planet. O, my king, you were so right. She is of your blood. “I see. Please, come in. I’m afraid I can offer you nothing in the way of refreshments—”
“I know. This is your family’s summer home. You just came up to check it out.”
“And how did you know that?” he asked, holding the door for royalty as he had done thousands, no millions of times before.
“Vee haff ways,” she said, and grinned at him. His heart did a little flip-flop in his chest, and he realized anew what the king and the new princess did not: Jeffrey Rodinov was not sticking close because he wanted to be her bodyguard.
“I brought take-out,” she said absently, preceding him. “Heard you get weak in the knees at the thought of bad Chinese food.”
“We all have our vices,” he admitted, and closed the door.
“S o lay it out for me, Mr. Dante,” Nicole said to the tall, neatly dressed, skinny guy she pegged to be in his early seventies. Guy moved like a matador, though, and she guessed that running around after the royals kept him in good shape. And he sure got over a surprise in a hurry. Another occupational hazard. “Let’s say I lose my tiny mind and go to the palace tomorrow and get this damn DNA test. What happens then?”
“Assuming it’s positive—”
“It’ll be positive,” she said glumly, poking at her beef and broccoli with a chopstick. “Unless this is my mom’s idea of a disgusting practical joke.”
He spooned more rice onto his plate. “Your status will be confirmed to the press. Arrangements will be made for you to move into the palace. Training will commence at once. Prince David has a thirty-year head start on you in terms of learning how to run a country.”
“And then I wait around for the king to die, and—”
“Assume the throne, yes.”
She pushed her plate away. She didn’t want to throw up again. “But wait a sec. I read somewhere that the king wants his kids to be co-kings and co-queens. He got the idea from reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
“Yes, he did, and, yes, that is his wish. But Miss Krenski…” Mr. Dante’s sad bulldog eyes blinked slowly at her. “There must be a High King. Or a High Queen.”
“In this case, me.”
“In this case, yes. But of course your brothers and sisters would assist you in any way they could.”
“Half brothers and sisters,” she couldn’t resist adding.
Mr. Dante tactfully ignored that. “Quite frankly, you cannot be everywhere at once, which His Majesty discovered in his early twenties, and you would be unwise to try. If I may impart a confidence to you, Miss Krenski—”
“Thank you, Miss Krenski, but no thank you. This is the best I can do until your status as an HRH is confirmed, at which point I—”
“Her Royal Highness. Are you all right?”
“It’s nothing,” she said, trying to stifle her gag reflex.
“As I was saying, the king has always regretted being an only child and has taken nothing but joy at the birth of each successive son or daughter. You wrote in your letter that you thought he might be embarrassed by you. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is most anxious to begin the process of knowing you.”
Nicole grunted. “Well, he’s gonna get his wish, starting tomorrow. But this whole shitstorm? It’s gonna be on my terms.”
Mr. Dante, who seemed like a helluva nice guy in spite of his overly formal demeanor—how did you sit at attention?—shook his head. “Oh, my dear. At this moment, several of your blood relatives are thinking the exact same thing.”
She absently cracked her knuckles. “Well, we’ll see.”
“Miss Krenski, if I may make bold to ask—”
“You ate all the rest of my rice, so you might as well stay bold.”
“What on earth has changed your mind? I had a private wager with myself that you would have (a) held out for six more months at least or (b) fled to America.”
Her headache, which had finally been receding, gave a tremendous throb, and she nearly barked, “Fled?”
Weirdly, Edmund seemed pleased. “I beg your pardon, I meant no offense. I only thought you might have taken advantage of your dual citizenship.”
“Yeah, well. That’s over now.”
She couldn’t tell whether he was being super-tactful or playing dumb. But didn’t it come down to the same thing?
“It’s in the papers. Local at first, but the wires have jumped on it now. It’s spreading all over the world like Ebola squared. My boss blabbed the whole thing.”
“I see. Sweet and sour sauce?”
“No, I’ll puke again.”
“Something we must avoid at all costs.”
“This morning when I came to work there were a zillion reporters and even more civilians.” She still had trouble understanding the fact that all those strangers wanted to take her picture. Among other things.
“That is to be—”
“Wanting my autograph, you believe it? I’ll never have a private life again. Everything’s—” She heard her voice crack and hated herself for it. She cleared her throat and quietly continued, “Everything’s over for me, now. So there’s no point in fighting it for another week. Or even another day.”
For some reason, Mr. Dante was on his feet and patting her on the shoulder. “Oh, Highness, don’t cry. It’s just another beginning. Nothing at all to fear.”
It was only then that she realized her face was wet.
And it was only hours later that she realized what he had called her, quite unaware, while comforting her.
She would spend the rest of her life internally flinching at the title, but would never forgot that the first time she heard it it wasn’t so bad.
“O ut!” the King of Alaska roared, his hands running across his desk and finally seizing something that wouldn’t give him a paper cut. He hurled a paperweight in Holly Bragon’s general direction, but as usual, she didn’t take the hint. Normally he would never treat a lady in such a fashion, but of course, the Dragon was no lady.
“So!” Holly said as if a glass weight hadn’t shattered two feet (he had been careful to aim wide) from her left ear. “Tell me about the bastard princess.”
“If you give her that name in my God-be-damned memoirs, I will give you a nose job with a chainsaw.”
“Already had one, sans chainsaw,” she said, clicking forward on her high heels and sitting in the chair to the left of his desk. “Can’t you tell? Don’t I look glorious?”
He fought the urge to plunge his hands in his hair and yank. He still had every strand, by God, at an age when lots of men were bald as billiard balls. He wouldn’t let her drive him to Rogaine.