“Edmund, you are a fuckin’ miracle worker!”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The crumb didn’t even bother looking smug. Just took it as his due. “All in a day’s work, Your Majesty.”
She jerked a thumb in Edmund’s direction. “I bet that gets annoying.”
“Hon, you have no idea. Nice dress,” he said, motioning for her to sit down.
“Thanks. It’s the only one I have. Wore it to Mom’s memorial service.”
“Oh.” That would explain the severe black and the long sleeves. And what message was she sending, anyway? Reminding him he couldn’t take her mother’s place? That was fine. He’d never intended to try. “Well. Ah. Say, how did you get in here, anyway? You’re not anywhere on my schedule.” He was pretty sure.
“Jeffrey brought me here.”
Fine, but why did that make her blush? Well, it was a stressful moment for her. And not likely to get much better in the months to come. He tried to harden his heart against the sympathy he felt for her (for the good of the country!) and failed. He had never been able to harden his heart against a child. Any child.
“Jeffrey switched with Reynolds this morning,” Edmund added. “Which is on your schedule.”
“I knew that,” he bluffed. “So, uh, kiddo—Nicole—if you don’t mind, I’d just as soon we got that test out of the way before you change your mind and shoot us all in the face.”
Nicole remained a stone. “That’s probably a good idea.”
“Edmund, will you get doctor—”
“ETA four minutes, my king.”
“Oh.” Annoying bastard. And thank God. “Great. Nicole, you had anything to eat yet?” He suddenly remembered the paramedics, the ambulance, and felt bad about all the hangover bitching. “How’s your head?”
“Yes, and fine.”
She just sat there like a lump, a pretty lump, and looked at him. Her hands, already tan from being outdoors, rested limply on the chair’s armrests. Her long, slender fingers didn’t move.
“I’m sure glad you’re here,” he said again, totally at a loss. He could deal with kids. He could deal with his kids. He could deal with his grown-up kids. But a grown-up kid he’d known only for a week? That was breaking new territory.
Al mentally spat on his hands. The blood of rebels ran in his veins, and they had made an art form of breaking new territory.
It did not occur to him until much later that the blood of rebels ran in her veins, too.
“You don’t want anything? Cup of coffee? Tea? Milkshake? Soy shake? Latte? A beer and a ball?”
“It’s a little early for me, so never mind the booze, but I’d kill for a cup of coffee,” she admitted. “Where is it? I’ll get it myself.”
“No, no, Edmund will get it.”
One of her fingers twitched. Her trigger finger, he noticed. Her eyes narrowed a bit and her mouth thinned. “I’m not gonna be waited on hand and foot, King Alexander. So you can get that idea out of your pounding head right now.”
“Of course not, we’d never dream of radically altering your lifestyle,” Edmund broke in. “How do you take it, Miss Krenski?”
She sighed and he figured she’d already guessed there was no arguing with the man. “Black.”
“Atta girl,” he couldn’t help but say. “She takes it like a man,” he couldn’t help bragging to Edmund.
“Your exquisite notions of chauvinism are as fascinating as they are maddening, my king.”
Nicole laughed for the first time that day.
“Shaddup,” he told them both.
“M atch,” the doc whose name Al couldn’t remember told him. “Match. And match.”
“Don’t talk in your medical jargon, doc; just spell it out.”
“Oh.” The doctor frowned. “I thought I was being fairly clear. Miss Krenski is a direct blood relation of yours, Your Majesty, a sibling or a daughter. And due to the age difference and the fact that your parents are—”
“Right. So it’s official. She’s my daughter.”
“She is, Your Majesty. There is no doubt.”
“There never was, doc.”
He was so excited to get the ball moving, he didn’t notice his youngest, Nicholas, motioning to the doctor. He went out the door of the lab without another backward glance, to his son’s great good fortune.
SITKA PALACE CONFIRMS BASTARD PRINCESS
NEXT IN LINE FOR THRONE
N icole walked into yet another ridiculously grand room, one she could have fit four of her trailers in. Her (ugh) siblings and (ugh ugh) father were already seated.
“Hey, Nicole,” Nicholas, the youngest, called to her. He was the only blonde among them. She’d heard the rumors, of course.
The official story was that Queen Dara was killed in a car accident on the way to a hairdresser appointment. Unofficially, she had been en route to meet her lover—Nicky’s real father.
But even when things were at their worst—when David and Christina were king and queen pro tem while King Alexander was in a coma—David did not permit a DNA test for the youngest Baranov.
“You made the front page this morning,” Nicholas was saying. “Again.”
“No reading at the table,” King Al ordered. “Ditch the rag, boy. How’d you sleep, Nicole?”
“Fine.” A lie. “But if I’m going to live here, is there a chance I could pick a different bedroom?”
“You can have any room—rooms—you want.”
“You hungry? You must be. I didn’t see you eat a thing all day yesterday.”
“Sure.” There was one empty spot at the table—to the king’s right. David sat at his left. “Thanks for waiting for me. Let’s eat.”
“Hallelujah, brothers. And sisters,” Alexander, the middle son, said. “Nicole, can I ask a personal question?”
“What happened to your mama?”
Before Nicole could reply, Kathryn, the youngest daughter, hurled a croissant across the table, catching Alexander neatly on the upper lip. “Dumbass! Don’t ask her that.”
“Cancer,” Nicole replied, struggling to remain straight-faced.
“Was she in any pain at the end?” the king asked quietly, which neatly quashed her urge to laugh.
“No, at the end—she never knew anything.”
“Asshole!” Alexandria, the eldest daughter (besides Nicole herself, she supposed), hissed at her brother. “Our first meal as a family and you had to go bring that up! Throw something else, Kathryn.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Alexander was cowering behind his saucer. “I was curious, that’s all. I would have liked to have met her. That’s all.”
“She got the diagnosis about two years ago,” Nicole elaborated, helping herself to an English muffin. “I took care of her as long as I could.”
“You took care of her?” Christina asked.
“No, I slammed her ass in a nursing home so I wouldn’t be bothered,” Nicole snapped, feeling her cheeks get warm.
“Please don’t kill my wife,” David said calmly, spooning up oatmeal. “It’ll ruin Christmas.”
Nicole laughed; she couldn’t help it.
“You’re, uh, kinda mercurial, aren’t you?” Kathryn asked.
Nicole shrugged, and as a footman discreetly poured her coffee, she thanked him and took a sip.
Her first night in the palace had been strange. She’d known it would be, of course, but still wasn’t prepared.
For one thing, the palace was ginormous. Easily the largest building she’d been in in her life—and she used to live in L.A. With hallways and rooms and corridors and multiple kitchens and nine thousand fireplaces, and it went on and on and on.
For another, she had a real glimpse of the kindness of the king. Her father. There had been a press conference, but she hadn’t attended. Mr. Dante and her dad had handled the whole thing.
He had told her to explore and gave her a cell phone so small and thin it looked more like a fat credit card than anything else.
It had a very specific function; it summoned intermediaries at a beep, particularly Edmund.
So she had walked around and occasionally bumped into a sibling and introduced herself to at least a hundred staff members, and by the time she went looking for David, he was long gone and not due back until after midnight. She and Christina had exchanged a few stiff words, she’d declined to meet her niece, and left.
Exhausted, she had gone to bed in a palatial (no pun intended) room that screamed “anonymous guest bedroom.”
Well, at least they didn’t already have a suite in her name all set up. They were arrogant, but not that arrogant.
And now they were, day two, at breakfast.
She had hoped to talk to David alone, then realized it might be a thing better spoken in front of all of them, so she spoke her piece.
“I’m sorry about usurping the throne from you,” she said, taking another sip of the excellent coffee. “That’s not why I wrote the letter.”
“Usurp means to seize or commandeer,” Alexander-the-younger said, “implying you had no right to it. When, in fact, you have every right to it.”
David was nodding. They—they were all nodding. That was a shock. “Still. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too, Nicole, but not for the reasons you think. None of this can be easy for you. We’ll all do our best to make the transition as painless as possible.”
“Ha,” she murmured, looking down at her plate.
“As for not being king…I haven’t really had a chance to wrap my brain around that one.” He smiled, but the smile didn’t climb into his eyes. “But who can predict the future? Who knows? Maybe Dad has another kid running around and he or she is older than you are. Then you’re off the hook.”