31,876
07.03.2019

"Bullshit. Christina Krabbe, you never ran away from anything in your life. You're not gonna start now."

"The 'e' is silent," she reminded him, "but thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I'm serious, kiddo. I know it's scary, but it's just an hour or so in front of the cameras, and then it's strictly fun stuff. You know—until I die," he joked.

"Okay. Sorry. I don't know what came over me."

"Hey, you wouldn't be human if you didn't get the fidgets once in a while. 'Specially today of all days. Shit, I was a wreck on my big day."

"You look great, by the way. Like a grown-up and everything."

"Fucking shirt collar is choking me. But thanks. You okay, then? You need anything?"

She managed a smile. "I'm fine. Thanks."

"Okay. See you out there. And Chris—really— David's a lucky boy. You look like a million bucks. In fact, you look like a queen."

She blanched. "Don't say that."

"Right. Sorry. But you do. Okay, sorry. 'Bye."

Mercifully, he left.

Jenny hurried back in, carrying her bouquet of light blue irises, and lugging Christina's bouquet of white and red roses, and dark purple irises. "I just got the word, Your Highness. We're on in three minutes."

"Don't start with that 'Your Highness' stuff," she warned, accepting the bouquet, which weighed approximately six tons.

"I'm well aware of your dislike of tides," Jenny said, smiling shyly. "I just wanted to be the first one to call you that."

"Jenn—get a life. I'm serious."

She laughed, which made Chris laugh. Unlike the demure young lady she presented to the world, Jenny had a whooping, infectious laugh. And for a moment, it was almost like an ordinary day.

"Ready, my lady?" Edmund whispered.

She was frozen, a deer in the headlights. She'd never seen so many people in one room—one enormous, cavernous room—in her life. And she hadn't even entered the room. She was still in the foyer, peeking in.

She knew she was supposed to start walking down the aisle. Everyone was waiting. More important, David was waiting.

She couldn't do it. She wouldn't do it. She'd run away. Leave now, today. Hike up into the wilderness … in Alaska, there was plenty of it. She knew how to hunt, she knew how to fish. She wouldn't be a princess; she would be a hermit. A smelly blond hermit who had narrowly escaped becoming royalty.

"My lady?" Edmund was looking at her with no small amount of concern.

"Ready," she whispered, with a smile that felt ghastly on her face. Stupid, pointless fantasy. Of course she would go through with it. She had promised, hadn't she? Not in so many words, but the ring she had accepted and wore on her finger was a promise—a promise set in platinum, with blue diamonds.

So—she would get married. And as for the rest of it, for her future job as queen or co-boss of Alaska, like Scarlett, she'd worry about that tomorrow.

The strains of Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary filled the air with their rich sweetness, and she started down the aisle. Suddenly there were too many things to look at; her brain struggled to process them all. And her smile felt frozen on her face.

First: the faces. Hundreds of them, all turned toward her. She thanked God she was wearing neither (a) pumps, nor (b) a train.

Then: cameras. All kinds of them. She spotted NBC, CBS, BBC, MSNBC, PBS, and ANB (Alaskan National Broadcasting), and that was just in one glance.

There were funny little flags hanging on the end of each pew … navy blue, with a big white letter. Some of them had a C, and some had a D.

Oh, right… David and Christina. Huh.

And flowers, flowers everywhere. Masses of roses, piles of irises. The church smelled like a garden. Or a funeral.

She walked, she walked, she would never get to the end of this aisle. She walked alone—that had been tricky. Al had offered to give her away and she'd used all of her tact (what there was of it) to turn him down nicely; she would not walk to her husband clinging like a vine to someone else. No matter how tempting it was. So—she walked alone.

Faces, faces, still more faces—how many people had they crammed in here? She'd thought the church on the palace grounds was enormous; it seemed far too cramped and crowded now. Faces.. . faces … hat. Hat. Purple hat. Purple hat! Jenny's mom was wearing a purple hat; Chris looked at her, observed that the older woman had Jenny's great dark eyes, and tipped her a wink. The purple hat bobbed in startled response.

She saw Kathryn, she saw Alex, she saw Jenny. She saw Prince Alexander, skinny as a blade in his tux—the boy really should lift weights or something, fill out—she saw the king, she saw Nicky, she saw… yes! There he was, at last: David, her groom. Hers. Very soon. Finally.

He looked unbelievable. He looked beautiful and kingly and wise and gorgeous and broad-shouldered and clean-shaven and kind and charming, all at once. He towered over nearly everyone, everyone but the king. His hands were clasped behind his back; he looked downright mouthwatering in his tuxedo. Who'da thunk it?

He was smiling at her.

She reached his side. He bent forward and said, for her ear alone, "You look incredible."

She whispered back, "What time does your tux have to be back?"

People magazine's photographer caught them giggling at the altar; it was the lead in every entertainment magazine in the world.

Chapter 25

She was wholly unprepared for the roar that greeted her and David as they entered the SitkaPalace's main ballroom: "Long live the prince and princess!"

"Well, thanks," she said. Under her breath, to David: "I assume they're talking about us?"

"Afraid so," David said, squeezing her hand. "Ready to run the gauntlet?"

"It can't be worse than getting married and crowned. No offense," she added.

"Of course not—who could find that offensive?" He rolled his eyes at her and brought her to the receiving line.

Where she shook hands for what seemed to be eight and a half hours. "Hello … thanks for coming… thank you very much . . . yes, thanks … hi … hello… thanks for coming… thanks, Horrance designed it for me … no, I wanted something besides white … never you mind …"

Jenny was on her left; David was on her right.

Jenny was doing both of her jobs—bridesmaid and protocol officer—at once. She would occasionally whisper the person's name to Christina, who would obediently repeat it.

"Queen Rania, Jordan," she muttered, and Christina found herself eye to eye with a woman pretty enough (and thin enough) to be a Victoria's Secret model.

"Hi, Queen Rania… thanks … thanks for coming … thanks, I wanted to try something besides white …"

"Princess Elizabeth, Yugoslavia."

"Hi, Princess Elizabeth . . . that's so nice of you to say . . . yes . . . thanks for coming . . . hi.. . hello there …"

"Crown Prince Frederick, Denmark."

"Hi… thanks … yes, I am glad it's over… yeah … well, it's only for one day, right?"

"Crown Princess Mathilde, Belgium."

"Great dress … thank you … we appreciate you coming all this way…"

"King Juan Carlos, Spain."

"Hullo, King Juan … thanks … yes, I picked them out myself. .. thank you …"

"Charles, the Prince of Wales—"

"Him I know, Jenn." Still waiting patiently to wake up from this bizarre dream, Christina was amazed to find herself shaking hands with Prince Charles. In person he seemed nice enough—he had the big ears caricaturists so loved to exaggerate, but his eyes were warm and kind, and he told her David was a lucky man.

"Well, thank you, Prince Charles." Jenny had told her it was entirely proper to refer to visiting royals by their titles and name. She knew Christina, as an American of no particular family, wasn't interested in referring to anyone else as "Your Highness." However, once she was married, like it or not, she would have rank equivalent to many of the royal guests. "I'm lucky, too. We appreciate you coming all this way."

"My mother regrets she was unable to be here," he offered smoothly.

"Well, I'm sure she's busy. Y'know, keeping an eye on England and all."

Prince Charles laughed. "That she is, Your Highness."

"Christina, please."

"Christina, then." He pressed her hand. He really was charming, in an urbane, geeky kind of way. His breath was minty fresh. "Congratulations again."

"Thank you, Prince Charles."

"Suzanne Somers," Jenny whispered.

"I know her, too," Chris said, exasperated. "Hi! I've got a Thighmaster and I just love it."

Ms. Somers made a gracious reply, looking like a million bucks in a bronze-colored dress that set off her hair and eyes superbly. Christina was amazed… she'd had no idea Suzanne's eyes were so big and blue and pretty.

"It was so nice of you to invite me," Ms. Somers was saying.

"Well, like I said. Love that Thighmaster. I hate my Buttmaster, though … that thing kills! I can barely walk the next day—I'm sincere!"

The famous blonde laughed. "Then you're doing it right, Princess Christina!"

"Great," she mock-grumbled. Then, "Hi, Dr. Pohl!"

"Your Highness," her shrink said demurely, then giggled. "Sorry, I couldn't resist. You look breathtaking." The doc kissed her on the cheek. "Nice work."

"Thanks. And thanks for coming."

"Frankly, I was amazed to receive an invitation."

"Oh, you shouldn't have been," Christina said seriously. "I really wanted you to come. I—I've enjoyed our talks."

Dr. Pohl laughed at her.

"Well, okay, they gave me something to think about, anyway. Listen, I'll catch you at the reception, okay?"

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