"She, actually. I've decided men have nothing to offer me, so now I'm a lesbian. Try to work that into your State of the Nation speech, as a personal favor to me."
"Stop messing with my head," he ordered. "You think it's funny, the shock at my age? And tell me about this guy."
"It's the guy I already told you about—"
"The annoying one?"
"His name's Sheldon Rivers—"
"Shut up, he's cool. Don't pretend you didn't read all about him in whatever dossier Edmund made for you."
"Yeah, well, skip to the highlights."
"He's the head of the aquarium out here—"
"His name's Sheldon and he's a geek."
"His name's Sheldon and he's got a pair of shoulders like an Olympic swimmer."
"Don't tell me this," the king groaned.
"I sweat just looking at him."
"Alex, for Christ's sake."
"You know that song 'Big John'? 'He stood six-foot-six and weighed two forty-five…' "
"'Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip,'" her father sang, " 'everybody knew you didn't give no lip to Big John.' Honey, who do you think played that song for you all those years?"
"Well, I'm just saying. Sheldon's a big guy."
"For a marine weenie."
"You taken a look at your son lately? Taller than you, isn't he?"
"Never mind," the king grumped. "Let's get back to Shelly."
"Please promise to never call him that again."
"I'm not promising shit. Besides, it's not like I'm going to meet the guy, right?"
"Right," she said firmly. No indeed. She had no intention of letting her North Dakota fling get within a hundred miles of the king.
"So you're, what? Dating him?"
"Yeah, but, where's it gonna go? I mean, he knows you're not going to be around much longer, right?"
"It's not like that, Dad. We're just enjoying each other's company. He makes me laugh and I—well, I have no idea what he sees in me."
"Besides an unimaginable fortune and the chance to live in a palace."
"Trust me, that's not what it is."
"Then whatis it? On second thought," he ordered, "don't answer that."
She giggled. "Don't worry. I love you, Dad, but some things will never be told."
"Well, I guess it's okay."
"Thank you sooooo much."
"As long as you don't enjoy it too much," her father said. "And you can consider that a royal command."
Too late, she thought, and wondered if that was smugness she felt, or something else.
"This is it?" Shel asked.
"This is our big date?"
She almost laughed. "Yes. Why? Do you want to go back?"
"No. No, but when you said it was a surprise, and we did this mysterious long drive in a fancy RV—I mean, a family of ten could live in this place—I guess—I guess I wasn't expecting—"
There was a rap on their sitting room door, and Jenny poked her head in. "Ready to go ice fishing?" she asked cheerfully, her nose adorably red from the cold.
"This isn't ice fishing," Shel decided, following the women off the vehicle. He looked around to the small team of men and women setting up drills, equipment (depth monitors and at least one fish finder), and tables of snacks. "This is a party at the Ritz."
Alex watched indulgently as one of her guards scooped ice chips out of the most recently drilled hole (there were four altogether), and another one plunked her baited line into it, then carefully propped the rod in the snow so it wouldn't fall over. Jenny handed her a steaming cup of cocoa laced with Godiva white chocolate liqueur and she sighed.
"School coming," someone announced, gaze glued to the fish finder.
"Very well," she replied. Then, to Shel, "It's not? What else would it be? How doyou go ice fishing?"
He waved his arms around and, in his dark brown parka and matching snowpants, looked like an irked koala. "Not like this! Not with fifty people driving me and drilling my hole and giving me snacks!"
"But it's so nice this way," Alex pointed out, and took a sip. "Mmm… Godiva up this drink a little more, will you, Jenn? Look, if you don't like it, go back into the RV and have a nap."
"I'm not… never mind. Whereare we, anyway?"
"Manitoba. It's a little too far into spring in Minot to do this safely," she said, gesturing to all the vehicles parked on the ice. She grinned at him. "Don't pretend you minded the drive."
"It's not the drive that's weirding me out. It's—"
"Your Highness, you've got a bite."
"It's that!" Shel nearly shouted, watching another staff member crouch over the hole, gently pick up the rod, set the hook, and pull a wriggling, thirteen-inch Northern Pike onto the ice. "That! That is not ice fishing! That is watching someone fish! I might as well be watching this on TV!"
"Dr. Rivers has a bite," someone else announced.
"The hell I do! And I'm not landing it, either!"
"That's all right," Jenny said cheerfully, trying to hand him a cup of coffee. "We'll take care of it."
"Another pike," one of the guides said, pulling the addled fish onto the ice. "A little too small; we'll unhook this feller and put him back. And the princess has another bite."
"We're in the school," the gal with her face in the monitor announced, unnecessarily.
"Nice fish," Reynolds, the guard, told him.
"It's not my fish! And it was just a baby."
"You'll get another one," Alex said, comforting him.
"No I won't! Aren't you listening?"
"It's hard to listen when you do all that shouting. I thought you'd like this. I thought this would be right up your alley," she complained. "God knows standing around freezing my ass off isn't my idea of a fun afternoon."
"How can being waited on hand and toe not be your idea of a fun afternoon? You're not even cold!"
"Dr. Rivers has another bite."
"No! I! Don't!" They were all staring at him as he shrieked. Fearing he might pop an aneurysm, he stomped up the steps into the waiting RV.
"Well!" Alex said brightly, shrugging out of her outer winter clothes and dismissing Jenny with a wave of her hand. "That was quite a show you put on this afternoon."
"Look, we just have different ideas about ice fishing, that's all. I was… surprised. Uh, pleasantly surprised."
"Mmm-hmm. I suppose your idea of fun is to crouch, shivering, over a hole it took you an hour to dig with substandard equipment, and no snacks, and no shelter if the wind picks up, and nothing to tell you if the fish are anywhere around."
"I can't help it," he bragged, "if I fish like a man."
She laughed at him and rubbed her eyes at the same time. "Well, I'm glad to be back at the hotel at least. God, I miss my bed."
"Are you all right?"
"Why, do I look like hell?"
"You look a little…" Sheldon was studying her with a gaze as alarming as it was penetrating. "Hollow-eyed."
"I was up all night talking to my dad. And then, of course, there was the fun-filled afternoon with Dr. Grumpy."
"Oh yeah? He calls you?"
"When I'm on the road. He's kind of a mother hen."
"The King of Alaska? I've seen pictures. The phrase 'mother hen' doesn't exactly leap to my mind. I mean, he's got fists the size of coconuts! That's just a scary, scary thought."
"Well, you know. He worries. It's been just him since my mother died, and I was just a kid when that happened, so…" She trailed off. Where was she going with that? It was hard to keep hold of a thought. She estimated she had slept ten hours in the last one hundred and twenty. It was easier to sleep when she knew Dara was safe, from—from—Her tired mind groped, lost it, tried again, gave up. "So it's just us. I mean, us and my brothers and my sister. He bugs them, too."
"Uh-huh. I have this keen idea."
"Keen?" She smiled a little. "Jeepers, Dr. Rivers, I can't wait to hear all about your nifty plan."
"You're so grouchy when you're tired. And my keen plan is this: let's bag dinner and take a nap instead."
"That's all right," she said, walking over to the mirror on the wall. "I got my fifteen minutes this afternoon. Good God, I look embalmed."
He laughed, came up behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders. She leaned back, enjoying the feel of him, the smell. "Princess, on your worst day you look like a movie star on her best."
"Dark circles and all."
"So's foot fungus."
"You know what I like about you?" she asked his reflection in the mirror.
"My wit, my sparkling personality? My gigantic cock?"
"None of those."
"I like that you're not trying to impress me all the time. I mean, look what you're wearing. Dockers, and no socks! Most people in a private meeting with royalty would put on socks, at least."
"They're all in the wash, along with most of my underpants. Come on." He took her by the hand and pulled her into the bedroom.
"Well, finally. I didn't think we were ever going to get down to it."
"For an untouchable royal princess, you've got a shocking one-track mind. Lie down."