"At least we got the ceremony done. Thank God the press wasn't there anymore."

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"Yes, that's exactly the thing we should be worrying about right now. You're a beautiful woman, Princess Alexandria, but you've got bags under your eyes the size of tea cups."

"Partying," she suggested. "The wild royal lifestyle."

"Nice try, but you weren't anywhere in that issue ofPeople ."

Alex shrugged and looked around the large office. "It's not a problem for me. It's just… how things are now."

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"I disagree."

"Thereis something I've been meaning to discuss with you."

Dr. Pohl raised white eyebrows.

"It might seem personal."

"Try me, Your Highness."

"I've been trying to figure out how to bring it up for months."

Dr. Pohl leaned forward. "You're safe here, Princess. You can discuss anything with me."

"What's with all the ducks?" There were pictures of mallards on the wall, wood duck statues, antique painted duck decoys, pinheads, spoonbills, and mergansers.Two framed duck prints from America. "I'm having waterfowl overload. Is it a special thing with you? Were you raised by mallards?"

Dr. Pohl settled back, admirably masking her sigh. She ran a hand through her white curls, adjusted her glasses, and put her pencil down. "You're changing the subject, Your Highness. Not surprising, given what happened yesterday, but not helpful, either."

"Well, I can if I want. I can talk about anything in here I want. I'msafe , remember?"

"You say that like you don't believe it."

She looked away. "Like I said, I can change the subject to whatever I want." She drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair, striving not to sound like a spoiled palace brat, and failing. "Current events. Waterfowl. The state of the Union. Prince William's upcoming marriage, which my dad actually thinks he'll be invited to. My niece. She's brilliant, you know."

"So you've said. Your Highness—"

"She's already talking and she's only one."

"Yes, Your—"

"She's practically toilet training herself and she's only one. Isn't that amazing? Don't you think that's amazing?"

"Fortunately, she won't ever have to worry about Devon."

Alex felt herself tighten. "That's a little obvious for a supposedly subtle analyst, isn't it?"

"I suppose."

"And there's always a Devon," she said bitterly. "Always."

"So your niece isn't safe? Your brother? Your father? If someone turns up late, they've been kidnapped?"

"Look, I overreacted yesterday, okay? Let's move on."

"You're not," Dr. Pohl said quietly, "or we would."

"B-besides, when has safety ever been a guarantee? For anyone, never mind someone in the public eye? Even for the good guys? My family didn't take this country from Russia by being nice. I'm sure felony assault was involved."

"So this is how it'ssupposed to be? You're a closed-off wreck who can't sleep because people aren't nice?"

"But my family's okay for now. If that's the trade-off, I'll take it."

"Princess Alexandria, it wasn't a deal." Dr. Pohl was leaning forward, her gaze so compassionate Alex had to look away again. "In fact, it'snot a trade-off. Why shouldn't your family be alive and well—all respect to your late mother, the queen—and why shouldn't you have a happy and fulfilling life?"

"Well, for one thing, if I did, you'd be out of business."

"Hardly," she muttered. "Your sister-in-law keeps me on my toes." Then, louder, "How is the medication working for you?"

"Fine."

"It's amazing," Dr. Pohl said, amused. "You look like a perfect angel when you lie."

"Thanks."

"But I think we should try to make some kind of progress."

"Why?"

"Your Highness."

"What?"

"Your Highness."

"None of this ismy idea." Alex crossed her arms over her chest and jiggled a foot up and down. "Have you seen my schedule? I've got other things to do. Like I said, this wasn't my idea. Blame my father, the big hen."

"I think it's safe to say I have never heard the king referred to as a chicken. Your Highness, in all seriousness, I can't help you if you won't let me."

"Then it sounds like we're done," she said, cheering up.

"Sit back down, Your Nice Tryness."

Glaring at the duck pencil sharpener, she did. She wondered if Congress would give her the power to have Dr. Pohl beheaded. Or at least suspended.

"Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?"

"No." This was another lie. Some nights, it was all she thought about. But ultimately… "It'd be like running away."

"I disagree, Your Highness."

"Of course you do. By the way, you should return that blouse. Babyshit tan is not a good color for you."

"Your transparent attempt to pick a fight about my admittedly eclectic wardrobe so we get off the subject won't work."

"Whatever you say, cotton ball."

"There's nothing wrong with trying something new, getting a little perspective. You'll be doing good work and at the same time, if you got out of the country for a while, it could do you a world of good. And since your brother can't go, it seems almost… fortuitous."

"Everything I need is right here."

"You don't have to stay to keep an eye on them, Alexandria."

And Alexandria, whose mother had been taken from her when she was still a child, and whose father had recently escaped death, put her head in her hands and wept.

Chapter 4

"I guess I'm confused," Princess Christina said.

"Then it must be Wednesday," Alex replied, not looking up from her travel itinerary.

"Ha, ha, Princess Sarcasto. Look, don't get me wrong, I think a change of scenery is just the thing. Just exactly the right thing. God knows it always cheeredme up."

"Do you miss working for the cruise line?"

"No," Christina replied shortly. "And don't change the subject. You're not a marine biologist. You're not even—I mean, your specialty is—okay, this is kind of embarrassing, I'm trying to remember, I'm sure I read about this a couple of years ago—whatdid you do in college?"

"I have a degree in Nursing."

"Oh. Right. Well, good for you. But you're not going to a new hospital, right? I guess I'm saying, what's the point of you going along on this little joyride?"

"Other than your sinister plan to remove me from the palace so you can further destroy royal protocol?"

"Yeah, besides that."

"Working on Alaskan/American relations."

"But America and Alaska get along."

"Yes. And it's like any relationship. It needs constant tending. Such tending is part of our job—your job, too, I might add. So I'll go along and smile big and answer questions and oversee funds and smash champagne bottles on things. It's a fluff trip. This looks fine, Jenny." Alex scribbled her initials on the bottom of the pages and handed it back to the protocol officer.

"I'll finalize the preps at once, Your Highness."

"Jenny, my God! Are thoseslacks ?" Christina, frozen in the act of popping a grape into her mouth, gaped.

The protocol officer, a woman Alex privately thought was an astonishingly efficient sloe-eyed beauty, blushed to her eyebrows. "I was taking Your Highness's advice, but if Your Highness feels I am dressed inappropriately for palace duty—"

"Which one of us Highnesses are you talking to? And calm down, I was only teasing. Grape? Look, it's okay. I'm sorry I even said anything,please relax." Christina bullied the smaller brunette into a chair. "Breathe, okay? Hey, you look great. Doesn't she look great, Alex?"

"You look great, Jenny," she repeated obediently, using all of her poker experience not to smile. Jenny reallydid look a little stressed… but then, she always did. Palace life was not without anxiety, no matter what the job or title. "Ilike the pants."

"Thank you, Highness."

"You should wear green all the time," Christina commented. The moment she released the other woman's elbow, Jenny sprang back to her feet. "It makes your eyes look even bigger and darker. And you should take tranquilizers. All the time."

"If you'd leave her alone, she wouldn't need the tranks," Alex commented, picking upThe Palace Poop , the in-house newsletter advising everyone from the reigning king down to the groundskeepers of birthdays, anniversaries, scheduled Softball games, and royal comings and goings. The newsletter had been Christina's idea. "Dadtold you to quit needling the officers."

"What, 'needling'? I'm just trying to get everyone to lighten up around here. Which is not very damned easy, by the way. I mean, look at you. All stiff and starched and dressed to the nines to eat pudding. And not even chocolate pudding. Tapioca. It's eleven thirty in the morning on a Tuesday, and Jenny's all dressed up—it's still a suit, even if it's slacks—to hand you some papers. Also, we're totally pretending that you didn't conk out at the christening this weekend. Lame."

"Protocol," Jenny corrected.

"And what's that stuff on the speaker, Jenn?"

"Beethoven's Fifth," she answered, as both women knew she would—Jenny was a fiend for classical music.

"You call that lunchtime music?"

"How could you not recognize it?" Alex asked. "It's one of the most famous pieces of music in the world."

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