"It sucks. Put on some Stones."


"Not even if you threatened to cut off my hands," Jenny said, showing some backbone for a change.

"That's more like it," Christina said approvingly. "Everybody's gotta relax around here. That's all I'm saying."

Alex wanted to say something bitchy yet cutting like "the Alaskan royal family got along fine before you got here" but, of course, that wasn't exactly true. Instead, she held up her empty dessert plate. Instantly, a footman—footwoman, rather—took it from her. What was her name? Something that rhymed with Harry. Mary? Terry? No… it was so hard to remember the new ones…

"Thank you, Carrie."

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"You're welcome, Your Highness. Something else?"

"No, that's fine. Maybe a little more to drink."

She and Chris were enjoying an early lunch; the rest of the family was out and about on various official duties. Alex knew she wouldn't get rid of Christina for a bit; her sister-in-law was deep in Concern Mode.

"Where's Dara?" she asked, changing the subject and smiling a thank-you as her glass of milk was refilled by another footman.

"With her dad in the penguin room. I guess they're keeping an eye on a nest and it's supposed to explode or hatch or whatever any second. It's hard work, getting fish guts out of a toddler's hair."

Alex grinned. "Thankfully your problem, not mine. She slept late this morning."

"Yeah…" Christina's hazel eyes were narrow and she was chewing on her lower lip. Her blond hair, recently cut to ear-length, was typically disheveled and she wore her usual outfit of jeans and a white work shirt, no socks, beat-up loafers. Other than the grooms, she was the most casually dressed person on palace grounds "Yeah, that's—I'm not gonna be distracted, by the way. Listen, not that I'm complaining, but don't you think this sort of—of errand or whatever—would be a better job for David?"

Her oldest brother, the Crown Prince, was also Dr. Baranov, with a doctorate in marine biology. Christina was irritating, but right. Which, of course, only made her more irritating. "Yes."

"Well, how come the king didn't ask him to go?"

Alex almost didn't answer. Jenny, who was sitting at the other end of the table to do paperwork (Baranov family protocol was a great deal looser than, say, Windsor family protocol) instantly looked twice as absorbed. Her posture gave offNo, I'm not hearing a word, not a single word, don't give me a thought vibrations, in the manner of skilled officials the world over.

Alex looked at the top of Jenny's dark head for a long moment, thoughtfully tapped her fruit knife on the edge of the plate, then said, "Because David has a happy, fulfilled, wonderful life and he doesn't want to leave it. Doesn't need to leave it. It was hard enough for him to agree to the Geneva thing, and that's only going to be for three days."

Christina paused in mid-chew, gulped audibly, then forced down the strawberry. "Well, okay." She coughed. "I mean… that's okay. Maybe this… maybe you'll like it."

"Maybe." Then, "Jenny, will you let Stacy know I'm going to want to talk about wardrobe issues?"

"At once, Highness. And you have a press conference in thirty minutes."

"Very well."

Jenny rose in a graceful rustle of silk and linen, scooped up her paperwork, bowed her head for a moment, and hurried out. She left behind the faintest scent of lilacs.

"Ick," Chris commented, glancing down at her practical clothing. "I'm glad you're going. But I have to say, that's like death to me, the whole thing. Wardrobe meetings, protocol meetings, itinerary meetings, babbling about same to reporters, who actuallywrite about it…"

Alex smoothed the lapel of her navy blue Travis Avers jacket. Christina's complaints on the subject were nothing new, though they somewhat mystified Alex. Meetings and the press and itineraries were a part of everyday life. Nothing was free… not even when your father's picture was on all the money. "That's why you're so cute."

"Don't start,Princess Alex."

She laughed. "I won't if you won't, darling plebian sister-in-law."





"Stuck up."

"I'll miss our lunches."

"Oh, Alex." Christina's eyes seemed to well for a second and, in an oddly tender moment, she leaned forward and kissed the top of Alex's head. "Sleep."

"Not now, of course. There's too much work to do."

Christina only sighed.

Chapter 5

"Right, right. So, she's going off to Arizona or wherever—"

"North Dakota, Your Majesty." Edmund, standing at attention three feet to the king's left, looked as if he had been born of starch. He was as tall as the king, but much thinner—"have a milkshake for God's sake" thin. His black hair was swept back from his face, which was noble, almost—was it possible?—kingly. Large eyes, strong nose, strong chin… many times, Edmund had been mistaken for a member of the royal family. He had been taking care of the Baranovs for decades. "But you were very close."

Christina kept pacing. The reigning king of Alaska, Alexander Baranov II, stayed seated at his desk, working on his word finds. Late afternoon sunlight spilled into the office from the large bay of windows on the left, gifting everything—desk, paperwork, floor, Christina's profile, Edmund's nose—with a golden hue.

"Right, North Dakota. That was my second guess. Well, the winters won't be much of a change for her."

"It's spring, Sir."

"Yeah, whatever," Christina muttered. "So Alex goes and—what? Everything works out great and she forgives herself?"

King Al looked up and said, almost sharply, "She doesn't have to forgive shit. She did the right thing. She was my brave girl and if she hadn't kicked that guy's ass—"

"Devon's ass, Your Majesty."

"Right, Devon. You'd think I'd be able to remember his name, but it's just one of those things that never stick in my head. Anyway, I would have—"

"Kicked his ass from your coma," Christina sneered, "sure."

"Well, I would have. Watch your mouth, miss. One of the three of us in this room is in charge, and it ain't you."

Edmund cleared his throat modestly.

Christina adopted a more conciliatory tone, an amazing feat no one but the king or her husband could bring about. "Look, I'm not saying she did anything wrong,you're not saying she did anything wrong,Congress isn't saying she did anything wrong. But obviously she thinks—well, she thinkssomething , or she'd be able to sleep and eat and she wouldn't jump every time somebody picked up a pen. I mean, come on. That's not normal. Freaking out when your brother—your chronically late brother—is late, that's not normal, right?"

"For Princess Alexandria, no. It's not normal."

"I didn't know her for very long before Devon did his little 'time to kill the king and take over the country' shtick, but she just—I mean,look at her. You can hardly tell she's pretty."

"An exaggeration, with all respect," Edmund said. "The princess is beautiful every moment."

"Not when she's staggering down the hallway at two thirty in the morning," Christina shot back. "I don't carehow great-looking she is, nobody looks good at that place and time. And you know why nobody noticed she was gonna faint? Because her normal skin color is 'about to faint' pale."

The king chewed on his thumbnail for a moment. He was an older, male version of Princess Alex, with the trademark Baranov blue eyes, black hair, and quick mind. His fists were the size of bowling balls, dwarfed only by his heart and generosity. "What does Dr. Pohl say about it?" he asked, slowly circling EMBARRASSMENT. "She's gotta have some ideas."

"Oh, she's like a clam. All that patient-client whatever-it-is."

"Privilege, Your Highness."

"Right. Like she said this weekend. Anyway, she's not talking. Not even under extreme nagging. And I bet Alex isn't talking, either. Not to Dr. Pohl, not to us."

"Characteristic," Edmund suggested.

"Annoying," King Al and Christina said in unison.

"So, she'll go. She seems like she wants to go… right? Chris, she say anything like she didn't want to go?"

"No, she's already signed off on her outfit lists and all that junk. She's got meetings scheduled and everybody's almost good to go. It's like she came to lunch with her mind made up."

"Well, then." The king circled ASSESSMENT. "Change of scenery, right? Kid might get a kick out of it. Might get some sleep."

"I guess slipping something into her food is totally out of the question."

"Yeah, plus it's against the law to do that to a member of the royal family."

"Also," Edmund prompted, "it's morally wrong and no way to solve a chronic problem."

"Right," Al and Chris said with convincing sincerity.

"When's she leave? It's on one of my schedules around here…" The king gestured to the hundreds of pages in neat piles around his work space. "Along with the grand opening of the new salmon farm."

"The day after tomorrow, Your Majesty."

"Tell her I'd like to have a meeting with her before she takes off. Clear my schedule for tomorrow morning and we'll get it done."

"I'll see to it at once, Sir."

"Al, how many times do we have to talk about this? You don't have meetings with your kid."

"Haven't seen her in a couple of days," the king said absently, circling ABASEMENT. "It's a big place. If I don't catch her now, I gotta catch her later. And I got stuff later."

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