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"I," David said loftily, "always excelled at hide-and-seek as a child."

"You were the prince. They let you win."

"Possibly. But we're getting off topic again. Come along, Christina, we promised to go."

"I think 'we' means 'you'," she grumbled.

"Look at it this way," Prince David soothed. "Lots of people get premarital counseling before the big day."

"Do I strike you as 'lots of people,' Dave? Come on, this is a big waste of time."

"Oh, you'd rather be shoe-shopping with Jenny?"

"No, I'd rather be—"

He grinned. "Don't change the subject, minx. Because Jenny told me she's been trying to pin you down for two weeks—"

"Fine, let's go see the minister."

"Actually, he's coming to us," David said, not quite apologetically. He glanced at his watch. "In fact-"

"The Reverend Jonathon Cray to see you, Your Highness, my lady."

"Swell," Christina muttered as Edmund escorted a short (finally!) man in a minister's collar and sober dark suit. He wore glasses, behind which merry blue eyes twinkled, was bald as an egg, and had the full cheeks and slight paunch of a man who didn't miss many meals. His cheeks were rosy and there was a bounce in his step as he crossed the room.

"Your Highness," Minister Cray said, bowing. "My lady."

"It's nice to meet you, Minister Cray." David put a hand on her shoulder, the better to keep her from fleeing. "This is my fianc, Christina."

Christina actually looked around for a second— fianc? Yep, he was talking about her. She stuck out a hand. "Pleasedtomeetcha," she mumbled. Small he might be, the minister had a grip like a starving anaconda. She extricated her mashed paw with difficulty.

"Thanks for coming up to the palace," David said, and she barely restrained a snort. Sure, like anybody was going to say no to the crown prince! Well, why should they? She sure as shit didn't Well, she did, but he snuck in under her defenses and weakened her. Bum. And now look at how she was spending her time. Making florists cry and getting her fingers broken by men of the cloth.

"Why don't we get started? I'm sure you both have a thousand details to tend to."

"Don't remind her," David said wryly.

"If you'll just fill out these questionnaires, we'll go from there."

"Oh, great! A test!"

"Yes," Minister Cray said, handing her a stapled set of papers. "But I will give you candy when you're done."

"I see you've been briefed on the lady," David said, accepting his own set of paperwork.

"Extensively," Cray replied.

"I foresee problems ahead," Cray said forty minutes later.

"It was a hard test," Christina whined.

"Mm-hmm. My lady, I see here for question number one, you do not appear to know your fiance's full name. You've written, 'It's David something some-thing something Baranov, and there's probably an Alexander in there somewhere.' "

"Well, I was close, wasn't I?"

Prince David stopped in mid-snicker when Minister Cray added, "And you, sir, don't appear to know the name of anyone in your fiancee's family."

"But they're all dead!"

"They still have names, "Christina hissed.

"And, my lady, in answer to question six, 'How will you go about fulfilling your duties of a wife?,''you have written, 'By keeping my head down and spending a lot of time hiding from my in-laws.' "

"That was a joke," she said weakly.

"Har-har," the prince replied.

"And, sir, you have replied to question six, 'By letting my wife spend as much time as she wants in the kitchens.'"

"What?"

"Because you're a chef!" he shouted, fending Christina off with his questionnaire. "Not because I'm a chauvinist!"

"It appears," Minister Cray said loudly, before a real fight could begin, "that you two know very little about each other."

"I know everything I need to know," Christina grumbled. "Jerk."

"Shrew," Prince David coughed into his fist.

"This is problematic," Cray added, distracting Christina with a Charms Blowpop, "as you're getting married in two months."

"God, is it really two months? Already?"

"Ah, it seems like just yesterday you were an illegal alien, sponging off my father and eating all the cocktail sauce in the palace," Prince David said, wiping away an imaginary tear.

"Shut your face, Penguin Boy."

"Now I really will cry."

"Look, Minister Crepe—"

"Cray, my lady."

"What difference does any of this make? We're each getting married for our own reasons."

"And that," Cray said, "is exactly why I'm here."

She ignored this. "He's healthy, I'm healthy, and, thank God, the king's healthy. We'll have, like, forty years to get to know each other. And lots of time before we actually have to, you know, do anything."

"Hopefully so, my lady, but that's not the end of it. You both come from—ah—that is to say, both of your parents—no offense to the late Queen Dara, or your mother and father, my lady, but—ah—that is to say—"

"Cough it up, Cray."

"He means neither one of us grew up close to a happy marriage," the prince said. "Your dad left and my mother was a terrible wife."

"Yes," she said, "but she looks dynamite in a painting."

"Thanks. But the question is, how can we know how to make a happy marriage on our own?"

Christina was silent, except for the crunch of her teeth breaking into the lollipop to get at the succulent bubblegum center.

"So, two months." David cleared his throat and plunged in. "Well, let's get to it. Uh, Christina, my full name is—"

"Crown Prince David Alexander Marko Dmitri Baranov," she said, still crunching. "Also known as the Prince of the Penguins, the Dork of Allen Hall, and my black-haired nemesis."

Cray's eyes widened so much she feared his glasses would fall right off his face. "My lady, if you knew—"

"She likes to mess with people's heads," Prince David said, not quite able to keep the grudging admiration out of his tone.

"Also, we've been in here an hour. Can we do this another time?"

"Oh, yes, certainly. In fact, I strongly recommend we all take a break."

"Cool. 'Bye." She handed the lollipop stick back to the minister and exited the drawing room, snapping her gum.

"Ah … Your Highness … a word, please …"

Prince David sat back down, resigned.

Christina, he was gratified to see, was waiting for him. "What's that?" she asked with faux casualness, popping a bubble and pointing to the small piece of white paper in his hand.

"It's a prescription," he replied grimly. "You've broken the minister."

"Oh, come on. Broken?"

"Broken. As in, he doesn't want to counsel us anymore. As in, he thinks we both need professional help. And by 'we' he means 'you.' So now, instead of talking to a kindly minister about our hopes and dreams, we'll be talking to a shrink."

"Oh, shit."

"My sentiments exactly."

Chapter 14

From The Queen of the Edge of the World, by Edmund Dante HI, © 2089, Harper Zebra and Schuster Publications.

Alaskan royally has never had much trouble dealing with international and local press. The reason is simple: Alaska is 656,425 square miles, over twice the size of Texas. And quite a bit of it, even in this century, is difficult to get to. Thus, any time the royal family has wanted privacy, they could disappear into the wilderness, and no one— "Not even God with a telescope," as King Alexander was fond of saying—could find them.

Thus, there wasn't the hostile relattionship between the House of Baranov and the press that was sometimes seen with other countries’ royalty.

For example, England is a small island. It's difficult to hide there. Alternatively, there wasn't the manipulation of the press that was sometimes credited to Princess Diana, King William's mother.

What does this mean? It means that "scoops" were often more a case of a reporter being in the right place at the right time than the result of endless royal-stalking.

The greatest day of Don Cook's life started out horribly. The Check Engine light went on as soon as his car started, his boss ripped him a new one for missing his deadline the night before, and his mother left him a voicemail telling him she was coming to stay with him for the rest of the winter.

The lead reporter for The Juneau Empire decided to flee his life's problems by going out into the bitter cold to buy an extra-large coffee, extra cream, lots of sugar. And while he was waiting patiently in line at the coffeehouse counter, he happened to glance across the street and see the crown prince's fianc, and the palace press officer.

Even better, they were entering a psychiatrist's office.

"Holy God," he replied when asked what he would like to order, and immediately fled the line.

Later, Don was to say, "It was pure chance I saw her. Thank God I had my camera in the car. And she was just—even before she was queen, there was something about her. A no-nonsense thing. And she was just so pretty, even in blue jeans and a T-shirt. Plus, she gave me a helluva quote. Probably got in big trouble for it, too. Not that she would have cared. She wasn't like that. Not at all."

"For the record," Lady Christina announced, "this is a big waste of time for both of us."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, too," Dr. Pohl replied.

She was a woman in her late fifties, with curly white hair, piercing brown eyes, and bifocals that made her look like a kindly grandmother instead of one of the country's leading psychiatrists, with a high triple-digit I.Q. and a brain like a razor.

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