31,874
07.03.2019

Wrinkling her nose at the stench, Christina said, "It was okay." She decided not to mention her comments to the reporter. David would find out soon enough. "When do you have to go?"

"In another hour. C'mere, I want to show you how to feed them."

"Can't we spend this time playing, um, hide-and-seek?"

He smiled at her. "This is important to me, too, Christina. Although, admittedly, not as fine as feeling your—"

"Okay, okay, I get the gist. It doesn't actually involve touching the dead fish, does it?" she asked, gingerly crossing the room. Her voice practically echoed off the walls; the penguin palace was a cavern. A zillion of the funny birds were walking and swimming and preening and shitting all over the place.

"Says the cook!"

"Hey, if we're talking a nice fillet or maybe a decent gumbo or chowder, I'll touch the dead fish, all right? But unless you've got some butter and flour in that little cart of yours …"

"Sorry. Just hoses and buckets."

"Oooh, sexy."

"Now, just toss it lightly—it's a little early for them to start eating out of your hand."

"Years too early." She picked a smelt or whatever the hell it was out of the bucket and tossed it. One of the penguins snatched it out of the air. Yeesh! Carnivore birds who couldn't fly. But who came up to her knee and could make lunch out of her patella. This got better and better. "Well, this has been fulfilling and all, and I've certainly learned all sorts of new and interesting things about you—"

"Nice try. How about another one?"

"How about not?" But she grabbed another smelt, and threw it at a penguin about three yards in front of her. "So, this is what you do all day?"

"Not all day. Some days I have to go see a shrink because my fianc is really stubborn."

"You're a real fucking comedian."

"Are you nervous about Boston?"

"That was a subtle subject change. Actually," she said, tossing another fish, "I just heard about Boston."

"Jenny?"

"Yeah, she asked me. But you know, David, you could have asked me." She was trying hard not to pout.

"Well," he said looking faintly surprised, "I put it on my list and delegated it to Jenny. She wouldn't have asked you without my say-so. So it really was like I'd asked you."

Christina sighed. "David, David, David …"

"What?"

"Never mind. To answer your question, I'm looking forward to it. Except for the penguin angle. I seem to be totally unable to get away from penguins in my new life."

David laughed and gave her a quick hug, which she enjoyed entirely too much, given that this was a marriage of convenience. "Sorry about that. But they've been talking about opening the new wing for quite a while, and I didn't want to put them off any longer."

"You're a prince. They'll wait."

"Well, yes. But why should they have to?"

"Good answer."

"Anyway, now that they've expanded their exhibit, they'd like me to come down for the dedication ceremony. It's what Jenny and Edmund refer to as a fluff job … no real pressure, no tough questions, just smiling for the cameras, cutting ribbons, and looking appropriately modest. Piece of cake, right, Christina?"

"I guess." She still had a hard time believing she was news, but supposed her fellow Americans needed to be distracted from their economic woes. More, she loved Boston, and was anxious to get out of the palace for a few days.

And she kind of liked the idea of traveling with David as a couple. Weird, but there it was.

"If you get nervous," he was saying, "just hold my hand really tightly and smile."

She had planned to do that anyway.

"Well, well," he said the next morning, looking considerably less amused, "if it isn't my fianc, the drooling psycho."

"Uh . .. good morning?" She looked up from chopping chives for her scrambled eggs. "Want something?"

"Yes, but I doubt it's anything you're going to actually do."

"Oh, sit down. And calm down." She watched as he stalked across the large palace kitchen and slapped the paper down on the chopping block, nearly upsetting her chive pile. It didn't escape her notice that the kitchen instantly emptied of the few servants who had been there. Apparently the prince in a temper was a rare sight, and nobody wanted to be around for it. "Hmm, not a bad picture. You can see my teeth. Probably nobody knew I had teeth."

"The picture is fine. More than fine," he added grudgingly. "It's the headline we're all having a lit-de trouble with."

"Yes," she said, taking in ROYAL FIANCEE TREATED FOR RAGING PSYCHOSIS. "I can see that. By the way, I never used the word 'raging.'"

"Really, Chris." The corner of his mouth twitched, but he still looked severe. Severely cute! His dark hair tumbled across his forehead and he looked like he'd thrown his clothes on. He hadn't shaved yet, either. Yum. Someone had clearly hauled him out of bed and tossed him the morning paper. "What possessed you?"

"The devil?"

"That's what Jenny thinks. She's been lying down with a cool cloth on her forehead all morning."

"Oh," Christina said, feeling fresh guilt. She didn't mean to make Jenny's job eight times as hard. It just sort of happened naturally. Like acid rain. "I'll go see her, if you want."

"That would be nice. Do you know what else would be nice?"

"No," she said humbly, "but I can guess."

He gave in and laughed. "Christ! I just about wet my pants when I saw this."

"What'd your dad say?"

"Never mind," he said, getting stern all over again, so she knew the king had thought it was hilarious. Sometimes she thought David was more Edmund's son than King Alexander's. "Look, just try to ignore these impulses toward wickedness, all right? For all our sakes."

"Well, I'll try," she said doubtfully.

"Thank you." He snatched her plate—onto which she had just piled her three scrambled eggs with chives and cheddar—and her fork. "As penance, I'm going to eat your breakfast."

"That'll learn me." She cracked another three eggs into the bowl. "Sorry about the rude wake-up call."

"Why didn't you tell me yesterday?"

Christina deduced that Jenny hadn't ratted her out, and made a mental note to do something especially nice for the woman. Maybe even (ech!) go shoe shopping with her. "There just wasn't a good way to bring it up."

"Try harder next time," he said sourly.

"I will," she promised, shutting off the burner, "for a kiss."

He looked around, seeing the now-deserted kitchen. "I'll give you more than a kiss, you little—"

Shrieking, she darted away from him. He caught her in one of the dry goods cupboards, which they promptly defiled.

Chapter 16

Christina watched the mountains below. No matter how often she was reminded of Alaska's beauty, it knocked her out every time. It was like living in a postcard. It gave her hope for the rest of the planet… if they could keep this place nice, they could probably—

"My lady. . ." The flight attendant, wearing a navy blue blazer with the royal family's crest, paused by Christina's seat.

She stopped in mid-slurp. It was hard to make a perfect Bloody Mary; most people put too much Tabasco in them. Why not just add too much battery acid? Anyway, this one was perfect. It was also her third.

She had thought riding in the royal family's private jet would be cool. Instead, it was weird. The thing was practically empty, except for the crew, Jenny, and the prince. And Jenny was lying down in the rear of the plane, fighting off another migraine with Advil and cold cloths.

She'd tried to distract herself with the view, but that didn't last very long. And now here was a flight attendant with news of their doom.

"My lady?"

"Eh? We're crashing? It's okay. You can tell me. We're crashing, aren't we? I promise I won't get mad. Just tell me."

"No, my lady. The prince would like to see you in his room."

"The prince wants to see me?"

"Yes."

"But we're not crashing?"

"Correct."

"So I can unbuckle?"

"Yes."

"Okay, then. But I'm taking my drink." She unlatched her seat belt, cautiously stood, then walked toward the rear of the plane. She knocked on a small door where the bathrooms would be on a commercial plane, heard David's "Come!" and poked her head in.

And nearly fell on her ass. "Wow!" Instead of a cramped bathroom, it was a medium-sized bedroom, with a desk and laptop in one corner and a queen-sized bed in the other. There was a pitcher of ice water on the bedside table, and a bowl of oranges. Her stateroom on the cruise ship hadn't been nearly as nice as this.

David looked up from the computer and smiled, absently brushing his dark hair off his forehead. She really ought to suggest he get a haircut. Later. "Hello. Thanks for coming back. I wanted to make sure you were handling all this okay."

"All this? You mean, your super-secret private nookie room?"

He laughed. "I usually use this plane for business, and I can safely say there has been no nookie gotten here." His dark blue eyes took on a gleam she hadn't seen before. "Although . . . since you're here … and we are engaged …"

"And I'm tipsy on three drinks . .. good bartender, by the way."

"Why are you drinking? I don't think I've ever seen you take a drink. Come here and sit down. What's wrong?"

"Nothin'." She walked four feet forward and sat on the end of the bed. He got up from the desk and sat beside her. She got a whiff of what she was beginning to classify as "Dave-smell". . . crisp cotton, light aftershave, and his own clean scent. Yum. "It's just. . . this is just kind of weird, you know. And frankly, it just doesn't seem right not to spend an hour standing in a security line at the airport. Not that I'm complaining. Because I'm absolutely not. But it's still weird. Jeez, I've been saying and thinking weird a lot in the last few minutes. But, there it is."

❮❯