"I know what she insisted on," his sister replied. Kathryn was six months away from ridding herself of the hated braces, and was the promise of truly breathtaking beauty, with the classical Baranov coloring: sinfully dark hair, enormous, crystal blue eyes. "Like I said, I just can't believe she pulled it off."


"Dad's fond of her."

"Tell me. It's like having the sister I never wanted," she added with a mock sigh.

They were standing in the left foyer of the palace chapel, where Prince Nicholas (sixth in line to the throne) quickly joined them.

"Are we ready? Is everybody here?"

-- Advertisement --

"Well," David said, "the baby's not here. And Chris isn't here. And the Alexes aren't here. And Dad—"

"Cool your jets, everybody," the king said, stepping in through a side door, his majordomo, Edmund, right on his heels. "I said I'd be here, didn't I? Right? Right. So what the hell's the holdup? Can we get this over with, please? Now? Please?"

"How did you get him into that suit?" David asked, losing his usual smooth manners and gaping at his father.

"A crow bar," Edmund replied smoothly. "Are we ready to begin?"

"Well, the godparents aren't here."

"Ah." Edmund pretended to consult his program, when everyone in the room (possibly the palace) knew he'd been the one to write it. "Prince Alexander and Princess Alexandria. And where is Her Highness, Princess Dara?"

A shrill whistle burst through the air and they all looked through the foyer door, across the front of the chapel, and into the opposite door, where Christina was holding the baby and waving madly.

"She came in through the wrong door," Edmund sighed.

"She probably didn't read the—I mean, she probably didn't pay attention to—" Princess Kathryn blushed to her eyebrows, then added, "I mean, doesn't she look gorgeous? Purple is definitely her color."

"Kid looks like an eggplant with arms," the king muttered, sticking a finger under his collar and giving it the tenth wrench of the morning. When David swung around, eyebrows raised, he hastily added, "A good-looking eggplant. Jesus! Can we please get the fucking show on the road? I could be in a fishing boat right this minute."

"Don't say 'fucking' in church, Dad," Nicholas corrected, running a hand through his cap of blonde curls. He was the only child of the king who looked nothing like his father. It had caused some trouble in the past; the late queen had been known to dally with men not her husband. "We're just waiting on the Alexes. You'll be on a boat by three. Supper-time, prob'ly, at the latest."

The king wriggled in his suit coat. "I hate these things."

"We all do, Dad."

"Shush, Your Highness. Your Majesty, stop fidgeting or I shall defect instantly to America."

"Ha! That's a bluff I'll damn well call!"

"Shhhhhhhhhhh, Dad!"

"Don't shush me, you little creep, you're not too big to spank."

"I'm two inches taller than you are, Dad," Prince David explained patiently.

"Ah, tensions are running high," Princess Alexandria said, entering the foyer. She was wearing a shin-length, long-sleeved blue silk dress the exact color of her eyes. As it was a "casual" affair, no one was wearing their crowns or any royal insignia. "My timing is perfect. Has Edmund threatened to move to the States yet?"

"Aw, shaddup," the king told her.

Alex peeked into the chapel, spotting several familiar faces… mostly staff and a few friends of the family. For the Baranovs, a typical low-key affair. Christina had insisted and the king had agreed: Dara had the entire rest of her life to be in the spotlight. Today was for family and friends.

Alex waved to Christina, who wiggled Dara's hand back, making it look like the baby was waving. Ugh. New parents were so weird. "She came in the wrong door," she muttered to Edmund.

"Jenny couldn't get her to pay much attention to the program," Edmund muttered back. "Your Highness, if I may make so bold, are you feeling all right?"

"I'm fine, Edmund."

"You look tired."

Alex guiltily felt the dark circles under her eyes and repeated, "I'm fine."

"What thehell is the hold-up now?" the king bitched. "The baby's here, the parents are here, the goddamn family shrink is here"—as one, they all peeked through the foyer and waved to Dr. Pohl, seated proudly in the third row—"the godmother's here. Can we please get this damned thing started?"

"Please don't refer to my daughter's christening as a damned thing," David said mildly, hands in his pockets.

"Prince Alex is running a bit late," Edmund admitted. "In fact, I expected him ten minutes ago. Perhaps he—"

"He's missing? Alex is gone?"

"Your Highness, I'm sure it's a simple mix-up—"

"Has anyone called him? Have you called his assistant? Did anyone look for him?" Alex could hear her voice rising with hysteria, but it was like she was outside herself, watching. Unable to stop. "When was the last time someone saw him?"

The king was staring at her. Everyone was staring at her. "Whoa, kid, simmer down."

"Simmer down?" she nearly shrieked. "One of us isgone and I'm supposed to lie back and take it easy? What if he's been kidnapped? What if the bad guys are taking him away right now?Why isn't anyone doing something ?"

From the other side of the chapel, Christina thrust the baby into her startled assistant's arms, and darted across, passing the altar and the masses of red and yellow tulips decorating the sanctuary. "What's the matter? What's wrong?"

"Alex is gone! Nobody can find him! He's—"

"He's right over there with me! He came in the wrong door, too, just about half a minute ago. See?" Christina yanked the princess over to the door and bellowed, "Alex!"

After a second, the princess saw her younger brother, fourth in line to the throne, wave, and hurry across, waving again to the patiently seated onlookers.

"Don't have a cow, man,

I might have overslept some

But everything's fine."

"How long do we have to suffer the haikus," Kathryn demanded, "because he lost a bet?"

"How many times do I have to tell you to cut… that… shit… out…" Odd. Everyone was tipping away from her, and now she could see Christina's face, an oval of concern directly above her, but it was receding, pulling back, and why, why, why was it so dark in here?

"I'm tired," Alex said automatically, before even opening her eyes. "I just need a nap."

"Ha!" the king said. She opened her eyes and nearly yelled; all the Baranovs were crowded around her. Dr. Pohl—the royal psychiatrist, physician, and all-around EMT—kept elbowing them back. The stethoscope had ruined the older woman's hairstyle. "You need a trank, among other things. And if you think that got you out of the ceremony, think again, missy."

"Where am I?"

"East parlor," Edmund replied. "First floor, east wing. It was the closest couch we could find, Your Highness."

Alex started to prop herself up on her elbows, only to feel Dr. Pohl grab an elbow and pull her back down. "How long since you've had a full night's sleep?"

"Last night."

"Liar," Christina said. She was cradling the baby and looking down at Alex just as anxiously as the others. Only Dara seemed unmoved; she had nodded off on her mother's shoulder, a tiny thumb corked in her mouth. "It's been months."

"It hasn't beenthat long," Alex protested. "Will someone let me up, please?"

"After the doc gets done. And Jenny's bringing a tray. Maybe you can get up after you eat every bite."

"She was worried sick," Prince Alex bragged, slicking back his already-slicked back hair with both hands. "Fainted like a teeny girl. What a big loser."

"I was not! I was just wondering where you were."

"You really did faint like a—well, a princess, I guess. If you read the fairy tales," Kathryn added.

"I did not faint! I lost my footing for a second and the rest of you overreacted."

"You passed out," Dr. Pohl corrected, putting away her stethoscope, "due to a combination of fatigue, stress, and malnutrition. In fact, I'd say you're at least ten pounds under your ideal weight. Why haven't you been eating?"

"For the last time, I'mfine . Nowtake your hands off me ."

Dr. Pohl let go of her like she was hot.

"Girly-o," her father said, his eyes slits of blue and the usual smirk nowhere to be seen on his face, "sick or not, you'd better apologize or you'll be unconscious again."

"I'm sorry, Dr. Pohl," she muttered.

"It's fine, Your Highness. I'm used to being screeched at by royalty. Oh, the things I could tell you if not for doctor-patient privilege."

"Hey!" Christina yelped.

"Besides, we can discuss that and—other things—at your appointment."

"What?" Alex cried, and nearly fell off the couch.

Chapter 3

"Everything is really fine," Alexandria said, looking Dr. Pohl straight in the eye with as open and honest a gaze as had ever been on a face.

"With all due respect, Your Highness, you're full of shit."

"You sounded exactly like Princess Christina when you said that," she commented. "I must protest. How about a little respect for a member of the royal family?"

"How about a little respect for me?" Dr. Pohl replied quietly. She was an attractive, pale woman in her early sixties, with the curly white hair of a cherub and the piercing intellect of a Nobel Prize winner. Which she was. "It's quite obvious you aren't sleeping well. It was obvious before yesterday's incident."

-- Advertisement --