"So, boy, what made you decide to be a marine biologist?"
"It's Shel. And I love the ocean."
"And you live here in NoDak?"
There was a long pause, but Shel didn't elaborate. The king tried again. "So, you ever been married?"
"You know I haven't, King Alexander."
"Well, it's overrated."
"Dad," Alex said warningly.
"Hey, I'm not saying she was a bad mom. Just a bad wife."
"Man, the temper on her! Oofta. Reminds me of someone else," he said, glancing at Alex out of the corner of his eye.
"I read some stories about her."
"Oh, yeah?" the king asked warningly. The scandal surrounding Queen Dara's death had only been matched by the baying of the media dogs.
"Yeah. Something about on her way to her hairdresser's?"
It had actually been on the way to her lover's beach house, but the Sitka Palace, of course, had told a different story. In Alaska, it was very bad form to discuss the truth as opposed to the glossed-over press release.
The king relaxed. "Yeah. Damn shame, too. She was a beautiful woman. Sure didn't need any help from a hairdresser."
"Dad. Shel. Can we talk about something else, please?"
"Like what?" the king asked, clearly exasperated.
"Anything. God, anything! The melting ice caps. The rising American crime rate. Porn. We could talk about porn!"
"I'm not talking about porn with your dad," Shel informed her. "Not even if you stick a gun in my ear."
"Is that a dare, boy? Hey, Krenklov! Gimme your Sig."
"It's not a dare, Dad! You just put that right back in your holster, Terry."
"Spoilsport. You guys don't know from porn," the king said, and finished his beer. "Modern conveniences make porn a totally different undertaking."
Alex rested her head on her hands. "God, God…"
"Internet porn. Ha! You young men have it easy these days. When I was a kid, you got your porn the old-fashioned way: you sent your butler out to buy it, and you hid it where your mom's maid couldn't find it."
"Great," she sighed. "Just when I thought the evening couldn't get any weirder."
"Yeah," Shel agreed. "That was kind of naive of you."
"Cheer up," the king told them. "Only three courses to go."
Teal Grange parked his truck, which was so dusty it looked gray instead of yellow, and walked into the Pick n' Pin. He went straight to the bar to get a cup of beer, and instantly noticed all the men were sitting the wrong way. They had swiveled around on their stools and were watching the lanes. Which the bar guys never did.
Teal took his cup, then glanced over his shoulder to see what they were all staring at. And nearly dropped his cup on the popcorn-spotted carpet.
There was Jenny, ultra-yummy, petite, too-starched Jenny (he didn't know how she managed to look stiff in jeans, but she pulled it off). Jenny, marching over to the ball rack, grabbing one down, lugging it to her place at the foot of the lane, hurling it down the lane, waiting impatiently for a couple of pins to fall down, marching to the scoreboard and scribbling, then marching back to the ball rack.
"Wow!" he said, instantly dazzled. He glanced up at her score. Nothing to write home about, but a shitload better than the other night.
"Not only that," the bartender, Carol, said. She flung the bar cloth over one shoulder, grimaced, then pulled it off and tossed it in the sink. "She's been in here since we opened at nine. That's her—what? Twelfth game?"
"Fourteenth," the bar guys corrected her in dreamy unison.
"You're telling me she's been in here bowling all day?" He checked his watch. No, he wasn't late. "Jeez, it's almost suppertime."
"Yeah, getting a little good at it, too," one of the bar guys said. "Christ, look at those legs. Black denim, ah-yup."
"I like 'em taller," another bar guy said.
"When they look like that, I don't care if they're a fucking midget."
"Don, you wouldn't care if they were a cat."
"She should pull her hair out of that ponytail. I bet it'd look good on my pillow," another bar guy joked.
"Shut up about that," Teal ordered. "Stop speculating about my… date."
Yeah, date. That was about it. Jenny wasn't in town long, for one thing. For another, she was already married to her job. For another, though he'd sell his soul for a shot at her in the sack, she clearly had no ambition to seehim naked.
He was there strictly for entertainment value. Someone for her to talk to during the rare moments she wasn't working. Frankly, he was amazed they'd made it past the first date. Zero in common,nada , zilch. But ooh, those eyes… and he didn't mind them short. At five nine, he was in no position to be picky about height.
Still, it wasn't every day a good-looking brunette wanted to bowl with him, and he definitely took what he could get.
"I see any more leers tonight, I'm pulling tongues out and wiping the bar with them," he warned.
"Great!" Carol said. "When do you think you'll get on that?"
He sighed. "Gimme a bottle of water, please."
He took his beer and the water over to Jenny, who had just hurled a split.
"Damn! You're getting good at this!"
"I've been practicing. Thank you." She accepted the water, and glugged it thirstily. "The Princess gave me the day off, so I left a message for you and came here."
"Jeez, that was, like, ages ago. I'm sorry, I had to take out a bunch of tourists, I didn't even have my signal until a little while ago."
"It's fine. Wretched ball," she muttered, plucking it off the roller and marching to the line.
"Is that what you say to psych yourself up?"
"No." She hurled again with a gasp, knocking over the fourth, seventh, and eighth pins. "Dammit!"
He sipped his beer and sat down at the scoring machine. She puffed a strand of hair off her sweaty forehead and waited for her ball to come back.
"So," he began carefully, thinking that the bowling balls might as well be mines.Might as well get to it. Please God, don't let her throw one of the damn things at me . "How'd it go after I dropped you off?"
"Oh, fine. Just… family business."
"You get in trouble?"
"The Princess protects me from that. Not many would, you know. Many who work for royalty are used to—" She cut herself off. "I'm sorry. I'm tired and upset, and I'm saying too much."
"Well, shit, you wanna go back to the hotel? I mean, you've been at this for a while."
"No, I don't want to go back there. If I go back there I'll want to work. And right now, for the first time in my life, I donot want to work."
"You—you don't?" He was almost afraid to ask. "Then, uh, whaddya want to do?"
She looked at him and for the second time in five minutes, he almost dropped his beer. Gone was the skittering gaze of the shy woman he'd been getting to know; this was a woman who knewexactly what she was after, and full speed ahead. He was almost afraid of this one.
"I'd like to see where you live."
He stared. And stared. And stared some more. Finally, to be sure, he said, "Where I live? As in, where I sleep? Where my bed is?"
"Yes." She ignored her ball when it came spinning back to her. Her gaze was like a laser. "Where your bed is."
"Well… okey-dokey. Do you want to get something to eat fir—"
"Because we don't have to get a burger, we could stop somewhere and get a sal—"
"I guess," he said, totally mystified, "we'd better go, then."
"Very good, Teal."
Teal pulled up outside a charming bank of sky-colored condos, got out of his filthy truck, walked around, and opened her door. "Mine's the one on the end," he said. "Sixteen hundred sixty six."
"The mark of the beast," she said gravely.
"Yeah, watch out for the elevator full of blood. That can be such a drag sometimes."
She might have laughed, but she was too nervous. She was a bundle of nerves, in fact, and all that energy had to go somewhere. Why not into Teal? He was a nice enough fellow. He looked fabulous. He lookedincredible . His jeans were filled out in the most wonderful way, and so was his rust-colored work shirt. She'd have to do something about the ponytail, though. But the hair—dirty blond, streaked by the sun—was wonderful, thick, like living gold. The glasses made him look thoughtful and smart.
And the eyes… the color of the Caribbean, the color of spring. She'd never seen such green eyes before. It was difficult to look away from them, and she'd spent a lifetime getting used to Baranov blue.
She followed him up the steps to his front door, still silently fuming about the events of the night before. She knew the Princess was a grown woman, that she herself was faultless, but she resented the king's implication that she hadn't done her job.
He was just upset, she reminded herself for the thousandth time. You're reading far too much into it.
Still. It hurt like nothing else had, except the death of her father. The king's disapproval. And where had she been on the night in question? Busy with paperwork? No indeed. She'd beenbowling . Which, to make everything much worse, she wasbad at.
Well, there was one thing she could control—two, actually—and getting better at that silly game was big number one on the list.
"Here we are," said big number two, swinging the door open for her. She walked past him, taking in a surprisingly neat abode for a man who lived alone. "So, you want a beer? A shot?"