She put a hand on her chest to slow her now-galloping pulse. "Wh—what?"
"Good evening, ma'am. Edmund Dante."
She shook his hand. His grip was firm and dry. It was like shaking hands with a plank of wood. "Is every guy in this country over six feet tall?"
"Yes, ma'am, every single one of us. If you'll follow me?"
"Where are we going?"
"Your quarters, ma'am."
"Oh. Super. And it's Christina, not ma'am."
After six hallways, an elevator ride, and four doors, she was standing in a small suite of rooms.
"I trust these will be acceptable?"
"Very well, then."
She flung herself toward the bed, twisted in midair, and disappeared in a billow of down comforters. "Oh, I could get used to this!"
What's-his-name's face appeared above her. This was slightly less startling than the first time. "If you have need of anything," he told her, "just pick up the phone. Tomorrow's luncheon is at one."
"Gotta sing for my supper, huh? Well, fair's fair."
"Would you like to meet Prince David before then?"
"Nothing, ma'am. It's the dry air in here." He hack-hacked into a closed fist. "It makes me hoarse. I'll attend to it immediately. Good evening."
He left, moving like a tall, tanned ghost, and she climbed out of the downy bed—took a while!— and prowled the suite.
Cream walls with gold trim. A zillion windows. A bathroom, a room just for hanging out in, a bedroom. Big windows—bigger than her!—that looked out to an emerald green lawn roughly the size of New York's Central Park. Four phones!
She picked up a receiver, just for the fun of it, and instead of a dial tone heard a cheerful female voice say, "Yes, Miss Krabbe?"
"It's 'Krabbe'," she said, startled. "The 'e' is silent. And, uh, nothing. 'Bye."
She hung up and kicked off her shoes, then flung herself onto the amazingly plush bed again.
Gotta find the catch. There's gotta be one.
Before she could figure it out, she fell asleep.
"Did you see her?" the king demanded.
"Fine, Your Majesty, and you?"
"Cut that out, Edmund, you harpy. What did you think?"
"A most…" He chose his words carefully. "… charismatic young lady."
"D'you think David will like her?"
"She's just what he needs. She's tough, she's cuter than hell, and she's a no-nonsense kind of gal. She yelled at me when she found out who I was. Usually people just sort of…" King Alexander made a vague gesture.
"Scuttle out of the reach of your mighty wrath?"
"Oh, shut up."
"Your Majesty, since you did ask my opinion— and as your servant I am most grateful for this rare opportunity to air my views—"
"Spit it out, Edmund."
"—can the prince not choose his own wife?"
"Well, what the hell's he waiting for?" The king jumped up from his seat by the fireplace and paced the room in his agitation. "He's going to be thirty this year and he's not even looking. Hell, he's not even dating. That Yank magazine—People, is it? He's made their Most Eligible Bachelor issue since he was drinking age, so don't tell me he couldn't get a date if he wanted to. And you've heard him, all this 'as long as she's healthy and wants kids' bullshit—"
"But that's understandable. Does His Majesty not wish the succession to—"
The king waved that away. "No, no, no."
"No?" Edmund teased.
"Jeez, I've got five kids—one of 'em's bound to get knocked up, or knock someone up. If David doesn't have kids, Alex's kids can run the country, or the other Alex's, or Kathryn’s, or—"
"I believe I see where you're going with this, sir."
"I just want him to be with somebody, you know? A partner. A friend. So he doesn't spend all his time mooning around after those smelly birds. When his mom—uh—left—"
"Prince David took the queen's death very hard," Edmund said quietly.
"Anyway, he needs a wife. And if he won't go get one, I'll find one for him."
"Lord help us."
"Dry air. I'll see to it immediately."
"So, the kid—Christina—she's settled in and all?"
"She was rolling around on the down duvet when I left her, chording like a monkey."
"Excellent. And she's having lunch with all of us tomorrow?"
"Good. Make sure David comes, too. It's not a request—tell him the king and he are having lunch, got it?"
"I had it the first time, sir,"
"Wise guy. Go away."
"At once, sir. Just one question … I confess to consuming curiosity—"
"What a gigantic fucking surprise."
Edmund sniffed disapprovingly at the language, but didn't comment. "I take it you have abandoned your peace-making attempts with Her Majesty the Queen of England?"
"She won't answer my letters," he said gloomily. "Her secretary's been writing back, how's that for a diss? Uh … no offense, Edmund. When I have you write back for me—"
"It's because you can't be bothered—yes, sir, I know. So England remains implacable?"
"Too damn right. Jeez, an honest mistake, and we're all banned from Buckingham and Sandringham for life."
"The honest mistake being when you mistook one of her prized corgis for a raccoon and chased after it on horseback?"
"I thought it had rabies," the king whined. "You know all the problems they've been having this summer. I was going to kill it for her."
"As a gesture of good will."
"A fortuitous beginning that would cement relations with her house and yours."
"Instead you merely chased her beloved dog to exhaustion, causing it to succumb to dehydration."
"Hell, it didn't die or anything. Just needed to see the vet. For a few days. Okay, a week."
"Um-hmm." Edmund passed a hand over his immaculate hairstyle. "Thus, we can forget about a marital alliance with the House of Windsor."
"So we've resorted to picking American commoners off the street?"
The king jabbed a finger the size of a sausage in Edmund's direction. "Never mind that snob bullshit My great-grandma was a nobody and she turned out to be the greatest queen this country's ever seen. Bloodlines don't mean shit up here. It's what you do that counts."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Christina's got the goods. David doesn't care. And I want them hitched. So that’s that."
From The Queen of the Edge of the World.
And that, as they say, was that.
"Maps," the blonde said, hurrying into the dining hall. She saw the steps too late and instead of skidding to a halt, simply sailed over them and landed lightly on her feet. She was wearing khaki shorts, a short-sleeved, powder blue sweater, and loafers without socks. "Maps in the rooms."
"What?" the king said. "What's the big deal, kid? Lunch at one, third floor. Easy."
"There are three dining rooms on this floor," she snapped, eliciting gasps from the servants and grins from the royal siblings. "Say it with me—maps."
"Well, excuse the hell out of me. Next time I'll have Edmund escort you."
"Swell," she muttered, sitting down at the empty seat beside David. "That won't scare me to death."
King Alexander cleared his throat. As were his children, he was dressed in denim and khaki. The watch on his left wrist was worth eighteen thousand pounds, English Sterling (a gift from Queen Elizabeth before relations deteriorated), and he had a rubber band on his right wrist, which was worth about eight cents, Alaskan. "Everyone, this is Christina Krabbe."
"It's pronounced Crab, not Crabby. The 'e'," she said, turning to David, "is silent."
"Anyway, "the king continued loudly, "she's sort of stranded in our country for a while, so let's make her feel at home."
"America didn't want you, huh?" the youngest boy said, and laughed.
"Shaddup, Nicholas," the king retorted, drawing on his formidable store of child psychology. "Christina, this is my oldest son, David, my oldest daughter, Alexandria, my other son, Alexander the Third, my daughter Kathryn, and my youngest, Nicholas."
"I know," she said. "I mean, it was nice of you to introduce me, but I read a newspaper occasionally. Also, you were all prominently featured in People magazine's Wild Royals issue."
David snorted before he could lock it back.
"The press," Alexandria announced, "plagues us. Plus, could they have published less flattering pictures? Blurgh."
"Oh, quit it," Nicholas said. "You know you're gorgeous, so no more whining about all the bad pictures, 'kay?"
"Pipe down, twerp," the princess retorted, but she looked pleased.
"I'm so glad you shaved," the commoner explained to the king. "That whole 'dead animal on the face' thing was just… yech. Also, as a disguise, it was pretty lame."
Now the Alexes were elbowing each other and snickering into their napkins while the king scowled.
"Look, let's just have a nice lunch, okay, brats? Okay?" The king, David could see, was trying not to plead. His brothers and sisters, like wolverines, could smell fear.