The first course, fresh oysters on the half shell, was brought out. David sucked the first one down while keeping half an eye on the woman beside him. She was really something—adorably cute, with bouncy blond hair and freckles sprayed across her nose and cheeks. Beautiful green eyes, the color of forest moss. She smelled terrific, like soap and wildflowers. And the mouth on her! If she was intimidated to find herself lunching with the royal family, she sure didn't show it. Most people sat stiff as a board and barely touched their meal.
"So, there's not a lot of bowing and scraping around here, I noticed," Christina said, eyeing the oysters with a neutral expression.
"Bowing and scraping Is discouraged by Papa. Plus it takes too long."
"What was that?" Christina, completely befuddled, asked Prince Alexander.
Prince David leaned close and murmured, "My brother's in this phase right now. He only speaks in haiku."
"He lost a bet," Princess Alex said. "Anyway, back to the bowing and scraping. Our father discourages it." She drained her water glass and, the second she set it down, a footman glided over and filled it again. "We weren't really raised to bow when the sovereign enters, bow when called, bow when he leaves, bow—"
"Big damned waste of time," the king said with his mouth full.
"And this is Alaska. We usually have more pressing matters on our mind than royal protocol."
"Unlike some royal families," David said, looking down his long nose.
"Don't blame the Windsors
Locked into their traditions
They are prisoners, too."
"That is amazing," Christina announced. "You can just—come up with those on the fly? You open your mouth, and poetry pops out? I couldn't write a poem to save my life."
Prince Alex smiled at her. Women were not usually impressed with his haiku. Or his fanatic interest in the period films of George Lucas.
"Kid's right—don't be slamming the Windsors," the king said, salting his lox. David thought it was a miracle his father didn't have a cholesterol level of eight hundred. "They can't help it. They've been doing the same shit for fifteen hundred years. Like Alex said, they're prisoners as much as any poor slob in jail."
"That's nice. Umm… where's the cocktail sauce?" Christina whispered to Edmund, who had taken up his post by the window, four feet behind her.
Edmund leaned forward. "I beg your pardon, ma'am?"
"The cocktail sauce," she said loudly and slowly, as if speaking to someone developmentally delayed. "For. The oysters."
"It comes with a vinaigrette," David explained. "Try it, I think—"
"I think I'll barf if I have to suck down raw oysters without cocktail sauce. You know those annoying people who have to put ketchup on everything?"
"Like the king?" Edmund asked snarkily.
She ignored that. And David found he had to bring his fist up and rest it below his nose to hide the grin. "Well, I'm one of those people who have to put cocktail sauce on seafood."
"Jeez, what's wrong now? " the king complained.
"Well, hell, my rights are being stomped on!" said Christina.
"Your rights as an illegal alien?" Princess Alexandria asked, and she did not trouble herself to hide her grin.
"Alexandria, we're trying to be nice to her," the king sighed.
"Matchmaker!" she coughed into her napkin by way of reply.
"Matchmaker?" Nicholas repeated, delighted. He barked shrill, boyish laughter.
"For crying out loud," David muttered.
Completely unfazed by the current discussion, their guest continued. "I mean, Jesus, you guys are lucky I'm even willing to eat these things." Prince David jerked his head back, narrowly avoiding Christina's waving hands. "The first guy who ever ate a raw oyster was a fearless—or desperate—son of a bitch, I can tell you that right now. Let's call a spade a spade, here—it looks disgusting. I'm sorry, but there it is—ow!"
A roll sailed across the table from Princess Kathryn's side, beaned Christina in the forehead, then fell into her plate with a plop. Oyster shells rattled and Christina looked up, but the princess in question was wolfing down her oysters and didn't return the gaze. Christina stared at her suspiciously for a long moment, then added, "So, cocktail sauce?"
Prince Nicholas had disappeared under the table, the better to muffle his laughter, which was piercing, to say the least. The king was resting his head on his hands, and Edmund was stonily silent.
Martha, the senior server, had reappeared and was holding a silver tureen brimming with, David prayed, cocktail sauce. She set it before Christina, smiled, and moved away with her usual silent, speedy efficiency.
"There! Cocktail sauce. Well, thank you." She twisted around in her seat to glare at Edmund. "Was that so damned hard, Jeeves?"
David joined his little brother beneath the table.
After lunch, Christina wandered around the castle, guidebook (The Official Sitka Palace Guidebook, revised edition 2003) in hand. Lunch might have been weird, with a yelling king and giggling princesses and a weirdly silent crown prince who later ducked under the table with his little brother, but the palace was pretty swell; the CinderellaCastle at Disney World had been modeled after it.
Eventually, after many turns and stairwells, she found herself in a long room lined with portraits.
The floor-to-ceiling curtains were drawn, to protect the paintings, she figured, but the room was filled with soft lighting.
Here was the king as a little, sneery boy. That pony didn't look too happy, either.
Here was the king's mother, a kind-looking, white-haired woman—look at all those curls!— with the king's laughing blue eyes.
Here was the king's great-grandfather, Kaarl Baranov, who helped break Alaska away from Russia, and won a crown for his trouble.
Here was his great-grandmother, the legendary Queen Kathryn, who was a chambermaid in the king's house when she caught his eye. Funny to think of a regular woman helping run the country. Well, they did it in America all the time.
Here was . . . whoa.
Here was a woman, imposing and beautiful and frightening, all at the same time. Her waist-length hair was deepest black, and her eyes, green as poison, glittered from the portrait. Her dress was made of deep blue velvet and she wore a necklace of sapphires as big as Christina's thumbs. Her skin was creamy white, unblemished and perfect. Her nose was a blade—Princess Alexandria's nose. Her mouth was blood red. Her teeth were very white, and looked sharp. The mouth of a passionate lover … or a woman who would bite when she was angry.
"She was something, eh?"
Christina jumped, then replied, "She sort of reminds me of the wicked queen in Snow White. You know. . . she was beautiful, but it didn't stop her from being bad."
She turned—and jumped again when she recognized David. "Oh, shit! I just insulted one of your relatives, didn't I?"
"My mother," he said.
She clapped her hands over her eyes. "Aaarrgghh! I thought she looked familiar! Jeez, I'm really sorry. It's been so long since she—um—jeez, this isn't going to get any better. …"
"Well." She felt him gently grasp her wrists, and pull her hands away from her face. "You're right, you know. She was beautiful. But she had her terrible side, too."
Christina couldn't think of a single thing to say to that, so she just stared at the prince. He was pretty easy to stare at, truth be told … he looked a lot like his father, had the same thick black hair and piercing blue eyes, the same build, almost the same height. She felt small next to him.
And his mother! Queen Dara had flaunted her affairs to the press and the king, respectively. Rumors of divorce had been thick, but then fate intervened. The queen had been killed in a car crash, during a rendezvous with her lover du jour. She'd apparently been applying lip-liner and had accidentally driven off a cliff. It was horrible and funny at the same time. A field day for the press.
David, if she recalled her modern history, had been seventeen at the time. Nicholas, the youngest, had just been born. And there had been nasty rumors about that, hadn't there? About Nicholas maybe being only half royal…
"Your family," she said, because she had to say something, "is really—uh—special. You got a gorgeous sister, a teenage sister who's gonna be gorgeous but who in the meantime doesn't talk much, a cute younger brother who only talks in poems— and the boy really needs a milkshake. What's he weigh, a hundred pounds? And he's six feet tall? And another brother who hangs out under the dining room table to yuk things up. And they all look the same except Nicholas, who has a head full of curls I would die for! Never a dull moment, huh?"
"I've come to ask you something," David said abruptly.
"Right. I'll go pack."
He smiled at her. His teeth were even and very white. He'd inherited his mother's mouth, if not her less desirable qualities. Christina would kill for the name of his orthodontist. He had a dimple in his left cheek. He was really very yummy, if a little standoffish, but that was—
"—like it here?"
"Huh? I mean, yeah, it's great. Your dad was really nice to let me come over and stay."
"He's a sucker for hard-luck cases."
"Is that what I am?" she asked, amused.
"But I'm getting off track. Christina … I was wondering .. . would you consider becoming my wife?"
She laughed. "I thought you just asked me to marry you. The acoustics in here!"
"I—what? Oh." She considered for a long moment. "You mean it? You're not teasing?"
"No." He took her hand, rubbed the knuckles gently with his thumb. "I'm not teasing."