31,884
07.03.2019

"Christ, I hope not," he said fervently. "The dumbest thing Prince Charles ever did—besides cheat on his wife—was resent the attention she got. Do you know how many more papers I can get done now? Think of my research!"

"Toldja he wouldn't be mad," Kurt said, blowing a bubble the size of his head. It smelled strongly of artificial grape.

"How can you chew gum this early? And you, would it kill you to be a jealous of the whole 'hey, Princess Christina, over here' thing?" she asked, mildly disgruntled. "And where the hell are we?"

They were in a large, luxuriously appointed room where the east wall was one big window. She could see planes coming in and taking off. In the distance, the plane the royals used to go here and there was slowly approaching. The press corps, locked out on the other side of the wall, was slowly dispersing.

"Hi!" Prince Nicholas said, dropping his chicken drummie and throwing his arms around her. "We wanted to see you off!"

"You're getting barbecue sauce all over my shirt. Bleah, how can you be eating at—what time is it, anyway?"

"It's ten-thirty," the king said with a yawn as he ambled over. He looked more like the grounds-keeper than the country's reigning monarch in his baggy sweatshirt, drawstring-waist pants with dirt stains at the knees, sockless tennis shoes, unshaven cheeks and jowls, and bloodshot eyes. "You couldn't leave at, what? Noon?"

"Hey, it wasn't my idea." She gave him a hearty smack on the cheek, grinning to see the lip gloss mark she left. "I bet you're running on about thirty seconds of sleep. You look like a car wreck, old man."

"Hey, it was the first wedding in the family. Party time." The king yawned again. "Marriage looks like it agrees with both of you. David, I haven't seen you unclench like this since you were out of diapers."

"Thanks, Dad," he said dryly.

"We're going to have a quick bite, and then you guys are going up, up, and away," Princess Alexandria said. Chris was amused to notice she'd changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. She might be comfortable telling David off, but she clearly had no intention of letting the king know she'd been out partying all night. "Heaven knows there's plenty of leftovers."

"Any chocolate-covered strawberries?" David asked, wandering over to the buffet table. "The cute ones that look like brides and grooms? That was a great trick."

"Dozens, sir."

"Awesome!" she said, joining him at the table. "Hi. I'm Christina."

"Yes, Your Highness, I know. I'm Devon—I'm filling in for Edmund and Jenny until they return. If there's anything you need, please don't hesitate to call on me."

"Relax, Devon, everything's fine." The guy was tall—not as tall as Edmund but, of course, no one was—and weirdly twitchy, with fuzzy blond brows that looked like tame caterpillars.

For someone who hung out at the Sitka Palace, he was a real wreck… most of them were formal, but relaxed. Devon looked like he was going to hurl into the punch bowl any second. Probably the pressure of his last-second promotion. Well, he'd relax when he realized none of them would bite.

"You guys want to check the plane for us?" the king asked, and the six-man security team obligingly trotted out the door.

"I'll stay here," Kurt called after them. "And guard the salmon."

"Check the plane for what?" Chris asked, al-though she suspected she knew.

"Bombs, guns, porn, bad food—you know," Princess Alex said, wolfing down a melon ball wrapped in prosciutto.

"Who'd care enough about us to blow us up?"

"Nobody I can think of."

"So where were you all night, anyway, Alex, hm-mmmm?"

The princess threw a melon ball at her.

"Quit that," Christina said, ducking. "One princess tossing stuff I can handle—don't you start."

"Hey, Chris, your shoe is untied," Nicky said, and, before she could say anything, he quickly bent to tie it for her.

"You weirdo, anything to touch—" Zinnnnng-thump!"—my clothes—huh?"

Zinnnnng-thump?

"Nicky!" Princess Alexandra screamed. There was a muffled thump as she dropped her buffet plate and it hit the carpet, spilling melon balls like brightly colored pieces of spring.

Zinnnnng-thump ?

Kurt, in the act of drawing his gun, suddenly crumpled out of sight in exact time with a loud, hollow, Bonnnnnnng!

Devon dropped the sterling silver serving tray (miniature wedding cakes had scattered everywhere), stepped over Kurt, corrected his aim, and—

"Nicky, get down!" the king roared, and his son dropped like a rock and rolled away. There was no mistaking the command in that yell—Christina nearly hit the bricks herself.

Zinnnnng-thump, zinnnnng-thump!

The king stared at the two small, red, feathered darts sticking out of his chest and slowly folded to the floor.

There was another bonnnnnnng! and Devon dropped his gun and clutched his wrist. Kurt was standing beside him, swaying. Blood trickled from his ear and dripped off his jaw. "Not s'fast without y'r pea shooter, eh?" he mumbled, then his eyes rolled up to the whites and he fell into the table.

"Y-you have to come with me, Prince Nicholas,"

Devon said, trying a ghastly smile. He had the gall to stretch a hand toward the crouching boy. "Your place is with us."

Christina opened her mouth, and found herself shoved backward and to the side. Suddenly it was difficult to see; David had planted himself squarely in front of her.

"Get the hell out of here, you traitorous piece of shit," he ordered coldly. "If you leave now, our security team might not blow your head off."

"Us, sir?" Nicholas asked, slowly straightening. He was very white, and very polite.

"Your mother's family."

"Domonov," Christina hissed.

"Yes," Devon said, barely glancing at them. "Twice removed. On my mother's side. The queen is dead, long live the rightful king." And he looked at Nicholas—this was somehow more frightening than the shooting—with naked adoration.

So fast, Christina thought. She was too shocked by the sudden violence to feel horrified. That would come later. It's all happening so fast—cripes, he only pulled his gun about thirty seconds ago! This is crazy, it was so easy for him, this is nuts, it's—

"My father is the true king," Nicholas said, too young to know it was useless to reason with a fanatic. "You're—you're wrong. Your plan won't work. And if it wasn't my father, if he wasn't the king, it'd be—"

Chris tried to shove David aside. It was like trying to bully a redwood. "Devon!" Chris snapped, her voice cracking like a whip. The man actually jerked around at the sound. "You'll never get out of here. You've fucked up, it's done. You're done. Make yourself useful, and tell us what's in the darts." And God help you, GOD HELP YOU, if the king is dead.

"If Prince Nicholas will accompany me, I will show him to his true—"

Ka-click.

Christina, David, and Devon, equally surprised, looked. During their brief chat, Nicholas had crawled under the table, found Kurt's gun, crawled back, stood, aimed, cocked.

"You shot my daddy," he said, and although he looked like a boy who was having a bad day at school, he sounded infuriated. "You shot my king and my sovereign, and you hurt my friend. So I'm thinking, it's only fair if I shoot you. Except these aren't darts. Lieutenant Carlson carries a nine-millimeter Beretta and these bullets leave big holes. I know—he let me practice with it. It's okay, though." He grinned. He grinned like a king on a battlefield, one who sees victory in his grasp. He grinned like Alexander, like Edward I, like Henry VIII, like his forbear, Kaarl Baranov, who got pissed off one day and won himself a country. "You won't feel it for long."

"Your High—"

Then, the final puzzling sound, a muffled whump-cra-thud! Princess Alexandria had slipped out of her shoes and crept on cat feet behind her distant cousin, picking up a banquet chair on the way. While her brother distracted the traitor who'd shot their father, she swung the chair sidearm, putting every ounce of her one-fifty behind it.

Devon did not so much fall down as go flying. It wasn't like in the movies. In fact, Alex's arm took the shock of the blow and it would be days before she could raise her wrist above her shoulder. The chair didn't shatter.

Devon's skull, however, did.

Alexandria sprinted to the far door, yanked it open, and screamed, "Alaaaaaaaaaaarm!" into the fair spring air. Meanwhile, David had reached his father, had plucked out the darts and was examining them. Christina bent and rested her head on the king's broad chest.

"These are animal tranqs," David said, puzzled. "I'm not sure exactly what kind, but they should just be enough to knock him out, or—"

"He's not—his heart—help me." She positioned herself and, as she had learned as an employee of the Carnival Cruise Line, began a closed-chest massage. One-and-two-and-three-and-four-and— "Breathe!"

David knelt by his father's face, eased his mouth open, blew a quick breath.

One-and-two-and-three-and—four-and— "Breathe!"

Another breath.

Most of her concentration was on the king, but faintly, on the far edge of her conscious mind, she heard Alexandria say, "Give me the gun, Nicky, okay?"

One-and-two-and-three-and—four-and— "Breathe! And somebody check on Kurt—that asshole clocked him pretty good."

She heard the click as Nicky popped the clip, as he ejected the bullet. Heard him slap the gun into his sister's hand. Heard Alex saying, "Oh, Nicky… Nick…"

Suddenly the room was crawling with security types—all the guys who'd been diverted to the plane. And why not? It was their honeymoon. Nobody had tried anything like this in four generations. And Kurt had been armed. And they had been a small group; they had thought they were safe.

❮❯