She had a glimpse of piles and piles of laundry before he kicked the door shut. "Guest room," he explained with a cough. "Not that I have any. Well, actually, I will. My brother's coming tonight to crash for a couple of days."

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"Crane, Robin, Crow, or Raven?"

He looked pleased. "Hey, you remembered! You listen real good."

"It's my job." She added through gritted teeth, "Which I'mvery very very good at."

"Whoa. Okay, calm down. And sit down." He led her to the couch. "I know you're not the boozing type, but I really think you need a drink."

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"Very well. And you didn't answer my question," she called after him as he disappeared into the kitchen.

"Crane. Robin and Raven are my sisters. Anyway, I didn't think you'd—I mean, when I told him he could crash here I honestly never thought you'd even see my—anyway, he's coming tonight."

"I won't stay long, then," she said,

"No no no. I mean, stay as long as you want. I don't give a shit." He held out a small glass half filled with yellowish-brown liquid.

"Cognac?" she asked, sniffing doubtfully.

"Jack Daniel's. Drink up."

She did, and instantly assumed the action was going to kill her. It seemed as if her lungs, trachea, and stomach were all trying to leap out onto Teal's dun-colored carpet at once.

"Feel better?" he asked solicitously, downing his own drink and smacking his lips.

"Loads," she gasped, putting the glass down on the newspapers with fingers that trembled. That was when she noticed… "How many copies of the paper did you buy?"

"Well, all my sibs wanted a copy. And my folks. And I bought one for his mom, because God knowshe won't think of it. He's real insensitive like that," Teal confided, plopping down on the couch beside her.

"Men can be that way," she said darkly.

"Ah-ha! So it's the king you're pissed at, not Alex."

"I'm just… tired. I'm ready to go back home. I really want to get back home." She realized how grumpy and inappropriate that sounded and hastily regrouped. "Not that it isn't a lovely state, but I just—I—"

"You want another drink?" he asked, green eyes anxious.

"No! I mean, no thank you. I want… you."

"What? Ow! Hey, that's my last clean shirt. Be careful with—" Then he wasn't talking anymore, lord be praised, because she had seized him with her tiny fists, her lust and anger giving her the strength of the gods. She pulled him close to her and mashed her lips on his for a good long time.

"Please let me go," he gasped after a minute.

"Take me into your bedroom," she growled.

"Seriously, I've got some mace around here I think… I got it for my sister's birthday, but that's not 'til next month…"

"Make love to me."

"But… okay. No, wait! Look, you're great and all, but you know the same thing as me."

"What? Nevermind. Less talking," she ordered. "More undressing."

He was trying to gently fend her off with an elbow as she rained kisses on his neck. "Ack! That tickles. Look, Jenn, I think you're cool and all—well, a little starchy, maybe—but you don't want to do this. You really don't."

"Yes I do. Do you have condoms?"

"Yes I do. Wait a minute! Aren't you listening to a damn word? We don't have a thing in common. If I was in Alaska, you'd never have given me a second look."

"That's not true," she muttered into his neck. "I think you're extremely attractive and annoyingly sexy."

"Well, yeah, there's definitely a chemistry thing going on here, but that's all. You'll be really mad at yourself in the morning."

"A pleasant change from being mad at—at things out of my control."

"Ah-ha!"

"Stop saying that. What's wrong with your belt? It's like there's a combination lock on it."

"Look, just… stop that…" He grabbed her hands and forced them into her lap. "Just… calm down now and stop getting me all worked up. I mean, I'm a nice fuckin' guy but only for so long."

"Too long," she grumped.

"Just, take a breath, okay? Relax. Caaaaaalm down. You're having a shitty day—week, maybe—and that happens to everybody."

"That has nothing to do with anything."

"No, no, it's okay! Shit, just the other day, some dildo-brain was all, 'I can't find the bail on my reel' and nearly poked my eye—never mind, it's boring. Anyway, my point is, you shouldn't do something you'll regret the shit out of later, just because the king hurt your feelings."

"He didn't mean it," she said automatically. "He was upset."

"Well, yeah! Believe me, I got the whole yuck-o story from Shel this morning."

"You did?" She didn't know if that was horrifying, or a relief. Of course, Dr. Rivers wasn't under the same constraints as she was. He wasn't staff, he was… something else.

"Oh, yeah! The king! Coming out of nowhere like Batman! Busted in on them! Practically naked! Shel and Alex, I mean. Then he freaks out and practically has Shel shot on the spot.Then he takes 'em out for dinner—I dunno which is worse."

"Thanks for the recap," she said dryly, "but I was there."

"It's no wonder everybody's upset. The way I hear it, that guy fills up every room he's ever in. I can't think of a better way to squash a, what d'you call it, a budding romance."

"Is that what it is?" she asked, immediately alert. "Because the princess doesn't… I mean, she has had no long-term involvements. Ever." That was safe enough. Anyone who had readPeople magazine knew that much.

"Trust me: they're going to get married. I havenever seen Shel this rattled. He's overlooked all his prejudices to be with her. Next thing, he'll be eating cheese."

"He—the king—he implied that I—that I had not been doing my job."

Teal laughed so hard he almost fell off the couch. Jenny stared at him coldly. "I fail to see the humor you've found."

"Do you hear yourself, woman? Nobody with half a brain could ever think that, not in a million years of thinking. You have no life! Everybody knows that!"

She cheered up a little. "Really?"

"Honey, you're pathetic! You didn't even bring blue jeans… to North Dakota! The princess had toorder you to actually leave the hotel to even go on a date."

She cheered up more. "That's true."

"It's so fuckin' stupid that you've got this idea in your head thatanybody thinks you're doing a bad job, much less King Hot Shit."

"Mr. Grange!"

"See? You can't even be mad at him properly. You suck at that, too! And youreally suck at being bad at your job."

She smiled a little. "You're just saying that to cheer me up."

"No, Jenn, I swear! You're the biggest workaholic loser I've ever seen."

She rested her head on his shoulder. "You're very sweet."

"And weird, did I mention weird? Because if I said all that shit to any other girl on the planet, she'd kick me in the nuts."

"No, the time for foreplay has passed," she sighed. She straightened up, patted her hair, and made sure her shirt was tucked in. "You're right, it would have been an error of grotesque proportions."

"Jeez, I didn't exactly put it like—"

She took one of his blocky hands in hers and squeezed. "Thank you for not taking advantage of me, Teal. I'll always be grateful. I never would have forgiven myself for doing something so impulsively unwise."

"Uh, you're welcome."

"You were so sweet to listen to my problems and help me understand them a little better."

"I'm an asshole," he grumped. "Golden opportunity to get laid by a hottie and I talk her out of it."

"Yes, you did," she said happily, standing. "And you've earned my eternal devotion and friendship."

"Great. That and a fuckin' dollar, I can buy a Coke."

"I'll buy you all the Cokes you want," she promised. "But first you must take me back to the hotel."

"Welcome back, non-bowling workaholic loser."

"It's good to be me," she said, completely seriously.

Chapter 32

"Come," the king called.

The knock on the door, quick and firm, came again.

"Come onin" the king called, louder.

Wham! Wham! Wham!

"Jesus!" the king screamed. "Come in, for Christ's sake!"

"Come," Alex said, and the door opened. "Hi, Shel."

"That's gonna get real fuckin' old real quick," the king said.

"It'sher room," Shel retorted. He walked in, slung his pack on an empty chair—to Alex's extreme relief, it didn't clink—and sat down beside Alex on the small couch. Her father was sprawled behind one of the desks, doing another of his dratted puzzles… the crossword, this time. "So, am I interrupting anything?"

"Naw," Al replied. "We're just talking about some upcoming stuff. Weddings and shit. What's a four-letter word for to hit or push against?"

"Butt," Shel said.

"Hmmm." He scribbled it down. "So, you two going out tonight, or what?"

"We usually stay in," Alex said smoothly. "Order room service, watch a movie."

"Sounds like plenty."

"How longart you staying?" Shel asked pointedly.

Her father gave him a look she knew well. "Dunno. I just got here. It's real pretty here. I might stay a while. Now quit buggin' me, I gotta think. Four letter word," he mused aloud, "for advance."

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