"Come," Sheldon said.
Alex chewed on her lower lip so she wouldn't burst into hysterical giggles. Shel shot her a look and she could see by the way his eyes were watering that he was having trouble swallowing his own laughter.
"You okay?" the king asked. "You look a little constipated."
"I'm fine, King Al."
"A rounded mass, i.e., the structure on the back of a camel. Hump. Damn, I've just about got this thing licked. Next time I'm doing it in pen." He looked up at Shel. "I'm pretty fuckin' smart, you know."
"Yes, King Al."
"No, really. I mean, we don't all have hotshot PhDs but that doesn't mean we're stupid."
"Dad, please." Alex tried to mask her exasperation. Although her father had insisted all his children get at least a four-year degree, he himself had never indulged. So his attitude toward those with degrees was mixed: admiration and envy. Good work, but don't let it go to your head. "Everybody knows you're smart. Almost as smart as me, even."
There was a discreet rap at the door, which opened at Al's absent, "Come!"
Edmund, the king's right hand man, entered after a polite pause. Alex could see Shel gaping at him, which was perfectly understandable. Her sister called him Ichabod Brain. Tall as the king, but much thinner, he looked as though he'd be at home in the starched suits and powdered wigs of two hundred years ago. As it was, he looked plenty starched in the severe gray suit and highly polished black shoes.
"Hey, Eds, what's a nine-letter word for creating an obstacle?"
"Har fucking har."
Edmund bowed. "Your Majesty. Your Highness. Dr. Rivers."
"Uh, hi," Shel said.
"Don't freak," Alex said. "He knows everybody's name."
"That's true, Your Highness." He stepped up to the desk. "I've brought some correspondence, my king, but the thing you desire most has not shown up."
"The ring of Sauron?" Alex guessed.
"Oh, like I couldn't have about ten of those made if I wanted. No, I'm waiting for the invite. We better figure out which one of us is going to go."
"Where?" Alex asked.
"PrinceWilliam? From England?" Shel shook his head, which Alex found understandable. Her father talked about the Wndsors like they were neighbors. In fact, he had a charming blind spot about Queen Elizabeth, the matriarch, which prevented him from—
"So, which one of us is going? Alex? You want to? Maybe I should, though. Head of the family and all. But Charles and Christina really hit it off at her wedding, maybe I should send her and David."
"Um, Dad, have you thought—have you considered—" She looked up; Edmund's eyes were pleading with her. The coward! He hadn't brought up the possibility. Once again, it was up to her to save the family honor. Nuts! "Maybe the queen won't be sending us an invitation."
Her father looked honestly puzzled. "What? Why?"
"Well… because she hates you and thinks you're a boorish clown."
"Oh, that." He waved away with one blocky hand his attempted murder of the queen's favorite corgi. "We got that straightened out when I was in the hospital."
"When you tried to seduce her."
"Hey, she likes me!"
"You tried to have sex with the queen of—"
"Quiet, boy. You really don't think she'll invite us? How can she not invite us? I've known her my whole life!"
"Perhaps," Edmund suggested, "that is part of the problem."
"You don't think she's mad because we didn't invite her to Dara's christening, do you?" he asked anxiously. "Because that was just family andreally close friends. There were only about forty people there. She wouldn't take that personal, right?"
"I'm certain not, Your Majesty."
"No," Alex agreed, "that's definitely not it."
"I was ather wedding,and Charles's, and you're saying she won't invite me to the kid's? Fucking Joan Rivers is going, but not me? Not that I think he should be getting married," he added in a mutter, "not at his age."
"Dad, he's almost as old as I am."
"Tell me. Kid should run around a little more; trust me, the girls will wait."
"Perhaps the mail has been delayed," Edmund said. "It has to come from England, after all, and then be routed to the States."
King Alexander visibly perked up. "Sure, that's what it is."
Alex glared at Edmund, who was only making it worse. Getting the man's hopes up! Queen Elizabeth wouldn't invite her father if it meant getting Ireland back. "She'd probably invite you," Alex said, "if she knew you wouldn't come."
"Well, somebody has to go."
"No, really. Dad. I don't think she'd mind if the Baranov family skipped a Windsor wedding."
"It's kind of mean."
"Well, I'll think about it."
"That's all I'm saying." Then, "Edmund," she asked sweetly, "may I see you in the other room for a moment?"
"Now just a minute," her father said. "It was all me, kiddo. He didn't do anything."
"You lie," she told the monarch, "like old people fuck."
"I am, of course, at Her Highness's disposal."
"Good. Hallway. Now."
"You're notleaving me with him?" Shel asked, horrified, just as she stepped into the hall with Edmund and pulled the door shut.
"What can I do for you, Prin—"
"Edmund, you suck!"
"Tone, Princess. 'A member of the royal family must always—'"
"Howcould you bring him here, how,how ? Are youtrying to ruin my life?"
"No," he admitted, "it just happens on its own, sometimes."
"You got me to come out here, no doubt some loser plan you and Dr. Pohl cooked up, then you showed him theMinot Daily News —"
"The king likes to keep up with current events."
"Oh, bullshit! He never would have seen that if you hadn't stuck it under his nose, not with all the junk he has to wade through every day, and sure as shit not when it's fishing season. So did you send me out here to have a good time, or not?"
"I confess," he confessed, "the picture startled me. I—we—were concerned you were perhaps… confused. Possibly from lack of sleep."
"That's very flattering, Edmund, you—you—" She couldn't do it. He wasstaff , he worked forthem , but she could no more insult him, fire him, smack him, then she could drench her hair with gasoline and light a match. "I'm not confused! Okay, I am. But bringing my dad—mydad !—out here is not helping."
"Perhaps you will come to a decision about Dr. Rivers."
"Perhaps I've only known him a week! We can'tdate , you never heard of dating? What, I've got to drop him or marry him? There's nothing in the middle? What is this, an episode ofBeat the Clock ?"
"Princess, you don't date. Quite frankly, until I saw that picture, I had assumed you were still… ah… never mind."
She buried her fists in her hair and fought the urge to pull out heavy chunks. "God… God… I'm not telling you when I lost my virginity, that's for damned sure."
"In fact, we're not having this conversation at all."
"Also good, Your Highness."
She stuck a finger under his nose. He raised his brows at her, but didn't flinch. She practically had to stretch toreach his nose, which made it difficult to exude authority. "For the record, buster, I'mvery disappointed in you. I could have been spared that whole scene the other night if you weren't such a fucking meddler."
"Stop it! What I do—or don't do—or do—with Dr. Rivers is my own business. Not yours, not the king's. Got it?"
"I know you're the king's man, just like Jenny's first loyalty is to me, but—"
"Ah, Jenny," Edmund mused, staring into space. "I must speak to her. She's managed to avoid me thus far."
"Don't you say a damned word to her! And you can consider that aroyal command . Got it?"
It worked! She'd never given a royal command before. But the situation was dire. To put it mildly. "All right. We're done."
"May I take my leave, Your Highness?"
"You can take a long walk off a short pier for all I care."
"Tone, Princess. And good night."
"Finally," she groaned, flopping down on the bed. "I didn't think they'd ever leave."
"Youdidn't think?" Sheldon was slumped in the chair in the corner. Her father had left typical chaos in his wake—papers, invitations, crossword puzzles, word finds. She had gladly shut the door on the mess, and led Shel to the bedroom. "You should have seen me and your dad trying to pretend like we couldn't hear you ripping Ed a new one. Awkward."
"Never Ed. Edmund." Then she realized what he had said. "You could?" She was instantly appalled. "You heard the whole thing?"
"No, just when you screamed," he said matter-of-factly. "A royal command, eh? Does that actually work?"
"We'll find out. Maybe I'll give you one."
"Sorry, sunshine. American citizen."
"Mmph." She studied her bare toes for a moment, then said, "It's so hard to yell at him. It's like yelling at my dad. I mean, I can do it, but it's tricky."