"Minot Daily News," Crane said. "Page one."
"Oh. Oh! Dr. Rivers!" Marin started to fumble for the phone. "Of course, I didn't recognize you without a threatening upraised fist. You're not on the list, but I'm sure it will be all right. Let me just notify Her Highness—"
"Please don't do that," Jenny interrupted. "It's a surprise."
"Jenny, you know I can't do that."
"Trust me," Shel said, "if you call her, it's all over."
"What's all over?"
They all turned at the boyish shout. Sheldon immediately recognized the youngest Baranov, Prince Nicholas.
"Your Highness," Jenny said, bowing. Marin stood and also bowed. "It's past your bedtime, Prince Nicky."
"Jenny, I'm fourteen years old. I'll tell myself when to go to bed, okay?" He tried to sound tough, but with the angelic blond curls and large blue eyes, couldn't pull it off. Impulsively, he hugged her. "Welcome back."
"Your Highness, this is—"
"Uh, yes. Dr. Rivers, this is Prince Nicholas Baranov, sixth in line to—"
"Oh my God, you'rehere !" The young prince—just entering that lanky stage of all height, no weight—goggled at him. "Alex is going toshit ."
"Language, Your Highness."
"Sorry, Jenn, but she is."
"Actually," Jenny said, eyeing Marin, who was still standing beside her desk, "there seems to be some question as to whether he can come up…"
"He can come up," the prince said, doing a startling imitation of his father's cool, used-to-being-obeyed tone.They must teach them that when they're baby royals , Shel mused. "He absolutely can. Alex has been crying her—I mean, she's been really upset. I know she wants to see him. I don't know about you, though," he added, sizing Crane up.
"I beg your pardon, Prince Nicky. This is my fiance, Crane Grange."
Nicky frowned. "I guess I missed some memos."
Crane shook his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Prince Nicholas. Jenny's told me a lot of wonderful things about you."
"It wasn't a bomb, by the way," the prince said. "Don't believe everything you read."
"If you'll sign here, sir," Marin said, extending a clipboard in Sheldon's direction.
He took it, and signed in as a guest. "Just like that, huh?" he asked, handing it back.
Nicky grinned. "Just like that."
"Come," she called, grateful for the interruption. She needed a break from the pacing. Not to mention the crying. The palace was the same, but nothing else was.
Oh, and now she was hallucinating. Because it looked like Sheldon was walking through her door. Her suite. In the palace. Where he would never ever go. Because he—
"I'm ready," he said, stopping three feet in front of her, "to listen to your apology."
"Also," he added, "I'm ignoring the fact that your little 'apartment' is bigger than the NDISL."
She stared some more.
"Well?" he demanded, hands on his hips. "Aren't you going to say a thing? Did I mention how much I hate flying? Because I fucking hate it. And not only was I facing death by horrifying crash every second I was on the plane, I had to watch Jenny and Crane make goo-goo eyes at each other. For hours! So you'd better say something."
"Is that an apology?" she managed.
"Forget it," he snapped. "You left. I said I love you, and you were leavin' on a jet plane like a bad Peter, Paul, and Mary song."
"Well, I love you, too," she snapped, "but I knew better than to say so!"
"Oh yeah?" He was shrugging out of his coat. "You could have fooled me."
"Oh, like you were going to quit your job and move and be a prince. Next thing you know, you'll be ordering brie as a dessert course." She yanked off her robe.
"That's a totally different issue," he insisted, unbuckling his belt. "I put myself out there and you left. Didn't even say it back."
"Well, I wanted to!" She pulled her nightgown over her head. "How could I ask you to move again, knowing you hate it so much? Knowing you were so happy at the NDISL? I love you, so I let you go."
"That's nice for a cross-stitch sampler," he said, kicking out of his shoes and slacks and unbuttoning his shirt, "but this is real life. And in real life, when someone you love says 'I love you,' you say it back."
"Well, I love you."
"Okay." She looked down at his feet. "You're going to take off your socks, right?"
"Hell, no, it's freezing in this place."
She laughed and rushed into his arms. "It's almost summer."
"Oh, God. Let's not talk about it."
They tumbled into her bed, her solitary bed, lonely no more, and kissed like reunited lovers—which they were—and purred and stroked each other, and whispered words of sweetness, of love, and the only thing that held her down was nothing, and it was all very fine.
And she came, and cried, and apologized, and he came, and kissed her tears away, and apologized, and held her, and she held him, and she was in love, and it was beyond all, it was like coming home. Finally, oh finally, she was home.
"Can't I be your consort?" Shel begged. "Do I have to be a prince?"
"It's not so bad," David said. He had returned from North Dakota that morning, and the whole family was together for lunch. Dara and Sheldon had taken an instant dislike to each other, and they were both giving each other guarded looks from across the table. "There's an excellent dental plan, for example."
"Sorry," Al said. "Believe me, you don't look like a prince. At all. I'd make you the Duke of Shit if I could."
"Now that's got a nice ring to it," Alex's sister Kathryn said. Sheldon could see the promise of immense gorgeousness in the brunette teenager, and briefly pitied his future father-in-law. "The Duke of Shit! Think what the family crest would look like."
Nicky laughed and spit pea soup out of his nose. Dara laughed, too, and drooled peas down her chin, to be swiftly wiped up by her mother.
"Sorry, Shel," Alex said with real sympathy. "By law, the spouse of the prince or princess is himself (or herself) a prince or princess. And I might as well tell you, you're going to get stuck with a bunch more titles, too."
"Like Lord of Losers," Kathryn suggested.
"And by the way, if we're celebrating my official engagement," Alex demanded, "why are we serving a vegetable I hate?"
"Quitcher bitching," the king ordered. "They're cheap this time of year. You know what it costs to feed all you bums?"
"I have the figure, sir," Edmund said, standing very properly at the king's right elbow.
"That's okay," Shel said hastily. "I don't want to know."
"I also have the figures on what it cost to ship your things from North Dakota."
Alex frowned at him. "I told you I'd pay for that."
"And I told you to forget about it. Bad enough I've got maids and—and footmen and someone's secretly folding my socks. I mean, I'm freaking out just sitting in this room. Although, it helps that you're all kind of jerky. If you were stiff and proper, this would be a lot worse."
"I think the Duke of Shit just insulted us," Christina said.
"Language, please, Your Highness."
"Cram it, Edmund."
"Speaking of stiff and proper," Jenny said hastily from Alex's right elbow, "if I may, the invitation to Prince William's wedding came in the morning packet."
"I told you!" the king said, stopping in mid gnaw on his lamb chop to crow. "I knew she couldn't say no to me. Us, I mean."
"Unfortunately, sir, you're already scheduled to be in New York that day to address the U.N. It is not a thing to be rearranged."
"Right, right. Well, I'll call her."
"No need," Edmund said hastily. "I have already extended regrets on the family's behalf."
"Okay, then. We got any more a' these chops?"
"Dad, for God's sake," Kathryn said, rolling her eyes. "We're all still on the soup course."
"It's my fault you're all slow, like cows in a pasture?"
"That's great," Alex muttered.
"He called us all cows," Prince Alexander said and, to Shel's startlement, continued in verse:
"Another way of saying
I love you, children."
"You stop that," Kathryn ordered. "You haven't done the haiku thing in ages. You're just showing off for Sheldon."
"You guys areso weird," Shel said, staring into his soup. "I can't believe I gave up nice, sane North Dakota for this."
"Ah, but you did," Alex said, squeezing his leg under the table. "Remind me to thank you again later."
"Gross!" Kathryn, Alexander, and Nicky all screamed in unison.
"Not until you're married," the king said, "or I break your spine, boy. Possibly in more than one place."
"You're killin' me," Shel groaned, in a credible imitation of the king.
"It's awful, I know. But look at this, this is nice," Christina said, admiring the announcement in theJuneau News . "You actually don't look like you're going to hit the photographer."
"He caught me in a weak moment," Shel admitted. A post-coital moment, in fact. But what the king didn't know wouldn't hurt him. "If we can't do it until we're married," he informed his bride-to-be, "then the date just moved up by six months."