"Get married, live here forever, be the queen someday?"
"No, thank you." She added, at his look of surprise, "But you were super nice to ask."
"No? What the hell do you mean, she said no?"
"No. Non. Nyet. She said no. Well, that's that. A pity, to be sure, but plenty of fish in the sea and all—"
"Freeze, Edmund! And you, too, David." The king noticed his son had started sidling toward the doorway. "Get back over here. Now. Did you do it right, with diamonds and roses and violins and shit, or did you blurt it out the first time the thought popped into your head?"
"Blurting might have been involved," the crown prince admitted.
"Jeez, Davey, that's no way to woo!"
"This is a classy broad. You know, under all the swearing and yelling. She's American, they're born romantics, you've gotta woo her. Because they don't have princes, they fantasize about 'em all the time."
"How disturbing," Edmund commented.
"She's not like one of the girls up here, super practical and likely to say yes because she sees the big picture."
"I'll admit," David admitted, "it wasn't the answer I was expecting."
"See? See? Can I pick 'em, or what? Now on top of all her good qualities—"
"Which are?" Edmund asked.
"—we know she's not a gold digger. You offered her a crown and more money than God and she says thanks, but no thanks." King Alexander drove his fist into his palm. "We gotta change her mind! This is the woman I want running the country when I'm gone. You know, along with you, Davey."
"Thanks for that."
"This is the mother of my grandchildren!"
"This," Edmund muttered, "is a royal pain in the ass."
"Proof! Proof! Edmund doesn't like her."
"Didn't you like my mother, Edmund?" David asked.
Edmund blushed, a rare and wonderful thing, and became unusually quiet.
"Well, I suppose I could try again." In fact, he was impatient to try again. Christina was .. . unexpected. And his father was a pretty bright guy. There were worse things than listening to the king's advice. Also, she had really cute freckles. "She isn't leaving anytime soon, is she?"
"She's got nowhere to go, poor kid." The king pointed a finger at him. "You. Go woo. Now."
"Majesty," David said, grinning, and dropped into a classroom-perfect bow.
"Cut the shit."
"As my lord and king commands," he said, and backed out of the room, still bent over in a bow.
"Nicky, you little brat, if you don't give that back right now…"
"That's no way to talk to a prince," His Highness Prince Nicholas, fifth in line to the throne, complained.
"I'm going to smack the crap out of a prince if you don't take my bra off your head this second. It doesn't fit you and besides," she added coaxingly, "it's my last clean one."
Nicholas, who had been fascinated by the new guest, not to mention the new guest's undergarments, crawled out from under Christina's bed. He had the bra fastened over his head, the snaps tied under his chin, and looked not unlike a mouse with large white ears. He had inherited his grandmother's hair (probably), and looked up at her from a mass of blond curls. "I was only fooling," he said by way of apology.
She snatched the bra away, almost strangling him. "Try it again, and they won't find the body, get it?"
He laughed at her. "Nuh-uh. You wouldn't. 'Sides, it's against the law in this country to hurt a member of the royal family."
"So? If it means I keep my underwear to myself, prison is a small price to pay," she admitted. "What are you doing here, anyway? Don't you have—I dunno—prince lessons or something?"
"Not on Sunday, dummy."
"Nice way to talk to a guest!"
"Are you going to stay for a long time?"
"I don't know. I mean, there's only so long I can live on your dad's charity."
"It's not charity," the prince said, shocked. "It's totally not. Dad likes you. He has guests over all the time."
"Yeah, yeah. Listen, I have to get a job. Maybe I could get one here!" Why hadn't she thought of that? And why was she confiding in a seventh grader? Oh, well. "I should go find the kitchens, talk to the chef…" They might be able to use an extra cook. At the least, she could make sure they never ran out of cocktail sauce.
"Um … Christina … I don't think Daddy wants you to work here .. . exactly …"
"Well, tough shit. Sorry. Don't repeat that."
"I'm twelve, not two. I've heard that word before. 'Sides, the king uses it all the time."
"I'll bet," she snickered.
"All the time, "David announced from a doorway, "is a minor exaggeration."
Christina jumped. "Don't you guys ever knock?"
"The door is wide open," he pointed out. "Get lost, little prince."
"Awwww, David! It's so boring here. An' don't call me that. I'm almost as big as Alex, and he's six years older."
"You are not. And as the king might say, tough shit."
Grumbling, the boy prince took his leave.
"I hope he wasn't bothering you," David said, closing the door as he entered the room.
"He's a cutie, with a disturbing yet healthy interest in women's underwear. Uh … what do you want?"
"Have dinner with me."
"I think I'm supposed to have dinner with all of you again tonight." She started peeking under pillows and checking drawers. "Damned schedule's around here somewhere…"
"Never mind the schedule. Have dinner with me. Whatever you want."
"Scrambled eggs and bacon?" she asked brightly.
He frowned at her. "I'm offering you anything you want, and you want eggs?"
"I love them. I, like, crave them. Scrambled, fried, poached, over easy, over hard—"
"Why won't you marry me?" he blurted, then smacked himself on the forehead.
"Whoa! Easy on the self-flagellation, there, dude."
"I'm supposed to woo you," he explained.
"Well, don't waste the woo on me. Not that it's not a really nice offer. Because it is!"
"So. Why won't you?"
"Because, frankly, being queen sounds like a gigantic pain in the ass."
"I offer you a country and you tell me it's a pain in the ass?"
She stared at the ceiling, then nodded and said, "Yeah, um … yeah. I'm going to stand by that."
"But you don't have anything!" he exclaimed. "My father said you're all alone in the world and you—uh—" Don't have anywhere to go, and are entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. Never mind. That wouldn't do.
She jabbed a finger in the middle of his chest. "I've got myself, pal. And that’s more than a lot of people have. Why should I submerge my identity with your family's? I can hop a boat or a plane and go anywhere in the world, for as long as I want. You know, if I had any money. Can you?"
"Theoretically." After the king approved, and the bodyguards were lined up, and the arrangements made, and security triple-checked everything, and—
"Right. Pass. No offense. But thanks for asking. Again."
"Well, you can at least have dinner with me. You know, to let me down gently."
She laughed. "Sure, you're soooo crushed. You don't even know me! Another excellent reason to say no, by the way. But all right. We'll have dinner."
"Scrambled eggs and bacon. And oysters with cocktail sauce."
"You can skip the oysters. And I like ketchup on my eggs."
He managed to conceal the shudder as he bowed, and took his leave of her.
"Hey!" she yelled after him. "I'm not gonna have to curtsey, am I?"
"We don't curtsey in Alaska," he called back. "We only bow."
Christina started to get a bad feeling when the smell hit her. Bird droppings and dead fish. The last time she'd smelled that, she was in Boston visiting the New England Aquarium.
But in the palace? What the hell? Sure, she was on the farthest west end of the palace … much farther and she'd be out on the lawn, but that smell.. . ugh!
She tapped on a door marked P, P, for P and at David's "Come!" entered cautiously.
"I knew it!" she said as the smell assaulted her anew. "You've got penguins in here!"
He straightened up from where he'd been leaning and tossing fish into the water. He was dressed in navy shorts, belted at the waist, a billowy white shirt open at the throat, and sandals. His big blue eyes gleamed at her in a friendly way, and stubble bloomed along his cheek. It was almost enough to distract her from the reek.
"Hello again. Forgive my appearance, but I had the distinct impression you wouldn't mind if I wasn't in a suit. Aren't they charming?"
He froze in the act of dropping another dead fish, and nearly lost the first two fingers on his left hand to a particularly hungry penguin. "What?"
She threw up her hands. "Jeez, Dave, you are so spoiled! This whole crown prince gig makes things really easy, doesn't it?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about, but in five minutes you won't notice the smell. Now, I'm having our dinner delivered up here in ten minutes, but there's champagne in the—"
"Ugh, we're eating in here? Amid messy birds and fish scales? What is wrong with you? A normal guy would never, ever get away with this. But you can bring girls to this stinky room and they actually pretend to be into it, don't they?"