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"Sorry," he panted in her ear. "I can't—I need you—next time will—"

"Shut up and fuck me," she replied, as politely as she could under the circumstances.

Delighted, he obliged. His hands were on her shoulders, his face was tucked into the side of her neck, and he shoved, shoved, shoved, and the headboard kept merry time with his strokes. She could feel his raw need, his urgency, and wrapped her legs around his ass (the better to go deeper, my dear), and then his mouth was on hers, his tongue was in her mouth, and she sucked on it, and he groaned wildly, and then he was done.

"Oh, God," he groaned, and collapsed over her.

"Horrance is not going to like what you've done to his dress."

"It's your dress."

"Not to hear him tell it," she said, and kissed his ear.

He pulled back slightly and propped himself up on one elbow. "I'm s—"

"Don't you dare apologize. We're married now."

He smiled and traced the curve of her lips with his fingertip. "I wasn't apologizing for making love—I'm sorry it was so fast. I know you didn't come. It's just—I've been thinking about this all day, and the pressure kept mounting, and you looked so beautiful I couldn't—couldn't wait anymore."

"Well, that works out nicely, because I was looking forward to jumping your bones, too. And the king, God love him, isn't here to stop us." She realized what she had said, then added carefully, "I didn't mean that I don't think of you as the king, because I—"

"No, you're right. The king's not here to stop us. I didn't know my mother very well."

"Okay," she said, because she had to say something, and hello, did that come out of nowhere or what?

"She wasn't a very—a very involved parent. So when she died, I barely felt it. But this—but my father—"

Then he leaned over, pressed his face into the side of her neck, and wept. She was appalled, both at her tactlessness and the raw emotion coming from a man who was usually tightly controlled, or at least indifferent. She didn't know what to say, and she was afraid if she did say something, she'd just fuck it up worse. So she held him, and stroked his hair, and waited for him to be done.

She stared at the ceiling and wondered what would become of them all.

Three weeks later. . .

"And if you could sign here, Sire … and here … and here …" Edmund gathered up each paper as David signed. They were ordinary-looking eight-and-a-half-by-eleven pages, but very stiff. .. they didn't curve or bend at all. Christina was curled up on me far sofa, watching them and wondering how much wood stock was in that paper. "Very good, Majesty."

"What else?" David said, rubbing his eyes. He looked ghastly, and no fucking wonder. It was eleven o'clock at night, he'd been up since five A.M., and the day wasn't over yet.

"Just a minor household matter, Sire—"

"Let me do it," Christina said. Both men looked at her with surprise, as if they'd forgotten she was there.

"Why are you still up?" David asked.

"Ask another dumb question, O mighty ruler of Alaska. It's my job, too, you know."

"Chris, there's no reason for both of us to be sleep-deprived," David pointed out reasonably. "Go to bed. I'll be up in a bit."

"Like yesterday? When you stumbled in at three A.M.?"

"There was some legislation I had serious questions about—"

"Look, Dave, I'm not bitching, okay? I mean, I am, but I don't mean anything by it. I understand you've got big-time responsibilities now. But so do I.I want to share in the work. You're saying it's not fair for us both to stay up late, but it's not fair for me to go to bed whenever and you stumble in when Fuckface here finally lets you go."

"Fuckface resents the term, Madam," said Edmund.

"Don't blame Edmund," David said.

"I don't," Christina said, glaring at Edmund.

"I've been trying to spare you the late hours."

"Well, don't But thanks."

"It's my choice to stay up. There's a lot of ground to cover. I'm kind of learning on the run. And I—I have a lot to do."

Christina knew he'd almost made a slip and admitted his deepest fear: And I'm afraid of screwing up. She said nothing; it was something they'd discussed in the privacy of their chambers, and she wasn't about to betray his confidence.

"Look, Eds here said it was a minor household matter, right? Well, let me take it."

"Okay."

"That was quick," she muttered.

"I am tired," he replied, giving her a ghost of a grin.

"It can wait until the morrow," Eds said. He garnered up all the paperwork. "I will retire, with Your Majesties' leave."

"No, let's make him stay up all night doing something he hates. Trying on blue jeans! We can make him give us a fashion show."

"Tempting, but then we'd have to stay up, too. This way we can actually get to bed before midnight."

"I would die before wearing dungarees," Eds said stiffly. "Your Majesties could throw me in the dungeon."

"Okay!" Christina said cheerfully. "Do we have one of those?"

"Come along, beautiful," the king said, standing, crossing the room, holding out a hand to her. "Let's get going before he changes his mind."

"Done and done," she replied, taking his hand. She stuck her tongue out at Eds while David wasn't looking and, to her complete amazement, he stuck his out in return. Only for a nanosecond, and she wondered if she'd really seen it. It was quick. Like a lizard.

"Eight A.M. tomorrow, Queen Christina. Jenny and I will discuss the household matter with you."

"I wonder," David said thoughtfully, leading her up the stairs, "what constitutes a minor household matter?"

"Beats the hell out of me, but I want you to sleep in tomorrow."

"I can't. I have to see to the penguins."

"David, you're the king, for crying out loud. Hire someone to take care of the fucking things."

"Oh, I couldn't do that," he said, shocked. "They're my responsibility."

"Overextend yourself much?" But she didn't bait him anymore. At least he looked relaxed whenever he returned from Allen Hall, even if he was slightly fishy-smelling. He sure didn't look relaxed when he was doing king paperwork. Half the time he looked constipated. "Fine, have it your way."

"Well," he said modestly, "I am King Regent."

"Sure, ride that one a little longer."

"I'd rather," he whispered in her ear, "ride you."

"Mister, you've got yourself a date."

Later, after love, he took her hand and said, "I couldn't do this without you, you know."

"That's not true, but thanks anyway."

Then she waited, hoping. She waited a long time, and assumed he had drifted off, when he finally said, with great difficulty, "I love you."

"That works out nicely," she said, "because I love you, too."

"Do you really?" He sounded honestly surprised.

"No, I married you because you were the only guy who asked. And because I'm a power-mad whore who likes being the goddamned Queen of Alaska."

"Oh, Christina," he said, "that's so touching. You're going to make me cry."

"Probably not for the last time, chum," she replied, and tickled his ribs, and unsuccessfully fought him off as he tickled her back.

Chapter 32

"Minor household matter?" she nearly screamed.

"Now, Your Majesty," Jenny said, looking more anxious than usual. "There are only two hundred forty-eight thousand, six hundred seventy of them."

"I'm supposed to write two hundred fifty-eight, two hundred forty-two …"

"Now, Queen Christina—"

"Jenny."

"—er—Your—um—Majesty—"

"How about if Jenny and I write the thank-you notes," Edmund suggested, looking especially cadaverous in a white shirt and cream-colored jacket—"and you sign them?"

She nearly pounced on the idea, then came to her senses. "No. Thanks, but no. Those eighty zillion people liked us enough to send wedding presents, so I guess I better get around to thanking them."

"You also have—"

"Oh, God." She covered her eyes. "Don't tell me."

"Eighteen thousand, three hundred twenty-six sympathy notes regarding King Alexander. So far."

"Argh!"

"Of course," he added with perfect straight-faced malice, "the daily mail hasn't arrived yet."

"But we have freshly made ice cream," Jenny said. "With sprinkles. You can snack while you work."

"You guys! You can't just wave ice cream under my nose and expect me to—what kind of ice cream?"

"Chocolate," they said in unison.

"Okay, okay. I said I'd do it, and I'm a woman of my word. But you guys. Cripes! Minor household matter, my big white butt. You guys are on drugs. What the hell is a major household matter? And what's this?" She peered suspiciously at the boxes and boxes of stationery. The paper was light blue, heavy stock, with HRM Christina Baranov in dark print at the top. "Ech. Queen stationery."

"We had to rush the printing," Edmund said quietly.

"Oh," she said, understanding. "Sure." There had of course been boxes and boxes of stationery, which were probably stashed in the basement somewhere, with Her Royal Highness. Princess paper. Which she couldn't use anymore. Son of a bitch.

She tried to lighten the subject, and went about it badly. "Can't I wait until Al wakes up and make tarn write thank-yous?"

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