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07.03.2019

"Yeah, so I've heard."

"My ears are burning," someone said from behind them. Edmund didn't break stride, but Christina whirled.

"David! There you are. I've been looking all over the place for you. Literally, all over the place. What's this about living at the palace after we get married?"

"What's this about honeymooning in New York?"

"Well, I was gonna run it by you," she muttered.

"Ditto."

He fell into step beside her. Today, interestingly, he was wearing a black suit, which set off his dark hair superbly. He was freshly shaved and she caught the clean, sharp smell of his aftershave lotion.

"So, um, how'd it go at the cemetery?"

"As well as could be expected. I'm sorry, I thought you had our schedule for the day."

"I don't read them," she admitted.

"Ah."

"Hey, listen, Dave, I love the ring."

His brow furrowed. "Which one?"

"This one," she said, showing him her hand. "It's the greatest. And the latest! Thanks a million. I hope it didn't—you know—it wasn't too much trouble to find."

"No." He smiled, took her hand, looked at it for a moment, squeezed it, let go. "It wasn't. I'm glad you like it. You're keeping this one, then?"

"You bet I am!"

"Wonderful. Did you show it to Kurt?"

"Not yet—I just got back and saw it. Well.. .just got back three hours ago, I mean. I've been looking everywhere for you." He was finally loosening up a bit; she was relieved to see it.

"I'm sorry you thought I was lost in the dungeons."

"Uh . . . you don't really have dungeons, do y—"

"Edmund is taking you to our apartments?"

"Yeah. I'm sure they'll be fine, but listen, we don't have to live here, like, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, do we?"

"No, of course not."

"Okay. Maybe you'll show me your house in Boston sometime."

"Our house," he corrected, and slipped an arm around her waist.

She rested her head on his shoulder. "I really love the ring."

"I'm really relieved."

"What's the stone? Blue topaz?"

"Blue diamond," he corrected. "I thought it would bring out your eyes. And the setting is platinum."

Whoa. So, instantly, ten times more expensive than her estimate. Well, okay. She loved the ring. All the more so because it meant David had finally started paying attention.

"I didn't know there were blue diamonds."

"They're rare. Like you."

"Oh, David, that's so … God, that's really… just so…" They stopped walking; his face was coming closer, his hand was sliding through her hair, gripping the back of her neck, his lips parted, she leaned toward him, and—

"Ah-hem!"

David jerked back. Christina glared. "What?"

"Your rooms, sir. My lady. As in, why don't you get a room. Well, here it is."

"Hilarious," she said sourly.

Big surprise, the rooms were huge, gorgeous, amazing, wonderful, blah-blah. She had a moment of blushing confusion when she looked at the king-sized bed—if she had to live with this sexual tension much longer, the prince was going to be raped on his wedding night. But overall the suite—"apartments," they called them—were terrific. There was a large bedroom the size of the average American's living room, a palatial bathroom done in golds and (sigh) a sealife motif, a small kitchen where she could whip up some snacks, two offices (what the hell she was expected to do in hers she had no idea), and a small living room with a fireplace and big, plush couches.

"Edmund, it's wonderful," David was saying. "You've outdone yourself."

"Then it's an ordinary day, Highness. I'm pleased you're pleased."

"Yeah, it's great.. . urn, what am I supposed to do in my office?"

"Whatever you want," David said, looking surprised at the question.

"Uh-huh. And what are you going to do in yours?"

"My work," he replied seriously.

"An addendum to Nesting Habits of Aptenodytespatagonicus?"

"You remembered the name of my paper!" he cried, so delighted he gave her a squeeze.

"Dull. But y'know, David, it's great that you're doing all this research and stuff, and I'm glad your papers are getting published because you work really hard on them, but what am I supposed to do? I don't have a job anymore, and you guys wouldn't let me cook for large numbers anyway… shit, I can barely get the cooks to let me make myself a sandwich. What's my job? There's got to be more to it than 'crown princess of Alaska.' Right?"

"Dad will probably start training both of us on the day-to-day running of the country."

She tried not to look appalled.

"The legislature does most of it," Edmund added. "But the sovereign—or sovereigns, in our case—has some duties, official and otherwise."

"Oh."

"Alaska is large," Edmund reminded her, "but its population is small. So you won't be christening boats or snipping ribbons on new buildings terribly often."

"It's nothing to worry about," David said. Then he frowned. "Okay, that's not exactly true. But it's nothing you can't handle—how's that?"

"Slightly less terrifying."

"My lady, trust me on this if in nothing else: you would not be marrying the prince in thirty-seven days if the king had found you wanting. The fact that you're still here bodes well… for all of us."

"Swell. I don't suppose I can fire the cook and take over his job, can I?"

"No. Besides, I hate to see a grown man cry," Edmund said, glancing at his watch. "Particularly before dinnertime."

Hours later, she found the family plot. It was set on the far eastern edge of the palace property, practically in the lake. It was, as she expected, beautiful. What in Alaska wasn't? Shoot, living in this place was like living in a glossy travel magazine.

She ignored the pressing feeling of not belonging. Like it or not (and she liked it. . . she was pretty sure . .. ), this was soon to be her family. She had as much right to be here as anybody. More, maybe.

Even if they hadn't invited her. Even if they'd gone off and left her—and was she a part of this family or wasn't she?

Maybe not.

Queen Dara's mausoleum was set between two soaring trees and, even with twilight coming on, looked sedate rather than scary.

Christina sat cross-legged on the small hill behind the stone building, and thought about dead queens.

I must be out of my mind. One day I'll be queen and then I'll die and they'll stick me back here. What was I thinking about? This is no place for me.

Then her forthright nature reasserted itself. To paraphrase JFK, if not her, who? Sure, she didn't have the pedigree for the job, but that didn't mean she couldn't be great.

Well, adequate.

"That's my goal," she said aloud, watching the grass wave. "Adequacy. All right, then."

She stayed by the mausoleum for a long time.

Chapter 21

" One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three—"

"Ow!" Princess Alexandria complained. "You stomped my foot again, you klutzy cow!"

"One more bovine insult," Christina warned through gritted teeth—she was still counting in her head—"and you're the only Alaskan princess with dentures."

"Well, pay attention!"

"—two-three, one-two-three—"

"Owwwwww! Will you for Christ's sakes let me lead?"

"No."

"Edmund, why are you letting her lead?" Alexandria cried. "My brother's not going to let her lead, you can be damned sure of that."

"—two-three, one—because I like to live dangerously, Your Highness—two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three—"

"Edmund!"

"Stop bitching and count," Christina said.

"I can't count—I'm distracted by the fact that my shoes are filling up with blood."

"Look—I gotta learn to waltz. And if I danced with Edmund, I wouldn't be able to see past his belly button."

"Why isn't David in here teaching you?"

"One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three— because His Highness already knows how to waltz."

"Well, so does my Highness."

"Yeah," Christina said, "but I want to be able to surprise Dave with my waltzing virtuosity."

"So, you're using a stunt-waltzer?"

"Shut up and count."

"I hate you."

"One-two-three, one-two-three—we all do, Your Highness—one-two-three …"

Alex's dark blue eyes—so like David's—flashed dangerously. "It occurs to me that I outrank everyone in this room," she declared. "So I'm just about done with the tootsie torture."

"I can kick your ass and you know it." Christina swooped across the room with Alex. "Hey, I think I'm getting the hang of this!"

"You aren't. Trust me. Where's your bodyguard? Isn't it his job to enter into dangerous situations with you?"

"The last time I danced with Kurt, I kicked him in the balls."

"And… turn!"

"Get out!" Alex gasped. "Seriously?"

"Uh-huh. So he's understandably nervous about dancing with me again."

"He's gorgeous."

"He knows it, too, so watch out. Once you get past the 'I'm too sexy for my shirt' bush-wah, he's a pretty nice guy."

"Better friend than lover, huh?"

"Exactly."

❮❯