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07.03.2019

He cocked his head—just like the penguins were doing!—and said sharply, "Pretend?"

She folded her hands over her breasts and looked adoringly at him. "Oh, Your Highness, they're so cuuuute! And they swim so fast! And look, they're eating right out of your manfully royal hand! And they don't smell like fishy shit or anything. " She fluttered her eyelashes at him, then had to stop when it made her dizzy. "Seriously, Dave. That whole, 'Hi, I'm going to be the king of Alaska someday. . . how you doin'?' thing works pretty well for you, doesn't it?"

"What is wrong with a hobby?" he demanded, wiping his hands on a nearby towel.

"Hobby! There's gotta be a hundred of the little buggers in here. So you, like, kidnapped them from Canada or wherever—"

"Antarctica," he said sourly.

"—then shut them up in your little palace of horrors—"

"I did not!" He angrily shook his head. "By that I mean, they have plenty of room, they're happy, and they're in no danger of being devoured by a killer whale or a walrus in here."

"No, they're just in danger of making guests pass out from the stink. But I guess that's okay."

"Well, I'm not getting rid of them," he shouted, "no matter how many freckles you have!"

"What?"

"Never mind."

"Well, I'm not eating in here."

"You certainly are, Christina!"

"Oh, that's supposed to be a royal order or something? Fact check, Prince Penguin, I'm an American citizen. You can't make me do shit."

"Then go away," he snapped.

"In a New York minute, pal! If I see one more bird shit on those rocks, I'm going to yark. Not that you'd notice the smell. And what's P, P, for P?"

"What?" He was very red, but took a deep breath and seemed to recover enough temper to answer the question. "It's Privacy, Please, for the Penguins."

She stared at him for a moment. "Oh, I'm gonna puke right now," she finally decided, and let herself out.

The moment she left, David hurled the contents of the last bucket into the water, and watched moodily while the cleverest, most charming creatures on the planet devoured the last of the fish.

"Well," Edmund coughed, emerging from one of the storage areas, a hose coiled over his shoulder, "that went well."

David nearly fell into the penguin pond. It was absolutely uncanny the way Edmund popped up and disappeared, never being heard or seen unless he chose to. "What are you doing here? If the rocks need to be washed off, I'll take care of it."

"I was merely anticipating your needs, sir, as any good assistant—"

"Eavesdropper!"

"—would do. It's just as well."

"What?"

"Well, the last thing in the world you need is a wife and partner who will tell you the truth, no matter how unpleasant. You need a flatterer, a panderer, a—"

"—woman like my mother, no thanks." He stared gloomily into the water for a long moment. "Well, I'm not getting rid of them, and that's that."

"As crown prince, you don't have to do much you don't wish to."

"The biggest lie of all," he sighed. "But I suppose you're right. She's—well, refreshing, at the least." He thumped his chest with a closed fist. "And she got me right here—I have had other girls up here, and they've seemed to go into raptures about birds that eat fish but can't fly."

"Fascinating creatures," Edmund conceded, "but not that fascinating. Ah, supper for two," he added as a footman rapped on the door and wheeled in a prodigious amount of food.

"Take it to the gallery," David grumbled. "I'll be there directly. As soon as I'm sure I can talk to her without strangling her."

"The gallery?"

"That's where she probably is."

Edmund cocked an eyebrow at him. "And how does His Highness know that?"

"Oh, she loves it in there. I think she likes looking at all the relatives. Because she doesn't have any, you know." He hurried to the sink in the far corner and washed his hands. "This is assuming she hasn't left the palace in disgust."

"Oh, if only."

"What?"

"Dry air." Edmund coughed, and coiled the hose neatly on a rock, and followed the prince out the door. "I've still got to look into that, I suppose."

Chapter 8

"What the hell is wrong with me?"

"I have no idea," Princess Alexandria replied truthfully. She was seated at the far end of the galley, an easel in front of her, her denim workshirt and cargo pants spattered with primary colors. She was shoeless, and her toes were small and pretty, and French manicured. She appeared to be painting the scene outside the window, which was interesting, because the curtains were drawn. "Frankly, we've all been wondering."

"Har, har. I mean, your brother, a perfectly nice guy—if a little obsessed with flightless waterfowl— asks me not once, but twice to marry him, and I blow him off like I can do better. I mean, what the hell?"

"Maybe you can," the princess suggested, shoving her brush into Caribbean Blue and smooshing it around. The brush spread into a fan shape and the blob of color on her palette doubled in size.

"Do better, I mean. I love my brother, and he's quite cute, but there's plenty of other fish in the sea."

"Not at the rate he's feeding those penguins."

Alex snickered, but didn't comment.

"Are you doing that devil's advocate thing?" Christina asked.

"No, I'm doing the polite conversation thing. Frankly, I don't know what you're waiting for. He's nice, he's cute, he's rich, and you're the first female he's shown any interest in forever."

"Sure, ramp up the pressure, see if I care." Christina flung herself into the chair nearest the princess. "How about you? Any marital prospects?"

"Plenty," she replied, drawing a bold blue stripe across the easel, "but they're all fortune hunters. And boy, did they come flying out of the woodwork when I turned eighteen. It's enough to make a girl renounce the marriage market. At least Kathryn's spared that for a couple more years."

"Didn't I read something about you and Prince William .. . ?"

She sighed. "I wish. He's perfect for me—good house, good manners, good bloodline, great body. And we're exactly the same age. But it was tabloid fantasy, unfortunately."

"That's tough. And never knowing if they like you or your title—that can't be much fun, either."

"Mm-hmm." The princess looked at Christina sideways and cocked a dark eyebrow. She, like her older brother, shared the king's coloring. Even casually dressed, the princess was breathtaking, with blue-black hair, dark blue eyes, and a porcelain complexion. Sitting next to her, Christina felt like the village frump. Which she probably was … if the royal family was any example, Alaska's general populace was ridiculously good-looking. "I suspect that's why my brother is anxious to reel you in, so to speak."

"Enough with the fishing metaphors."

"Fine, I'll put it this way. Your indifferent, uncaring attitude is a breath of fresh air." The princess managed to say this without the tiniest bit of irony.

"So, not giving a shit is a big selling point, huh?"

Alexandria snickered. "I'm afraid so." She shoved a hank of dark hair off her forehead and sobered. "Let me level with you, Christina, woman-to-woman."

"Or princess-to-commoner."

"My brother hasn't cared about much of anything since my mother died in that stupid, senseless accident. He was focused on school, and duty, and occasionally penguins. Now all of a sudden he's chasing you all over the palace. My father's all for the match. And you, pardon my bluntness, have nowhere to go. So what, exactly, is the problem? There are about a zillion worse things than eventually being the queen of Alaska."

"Mmmm. A zillion, huh?"

"So marry him, or don't. But in my so-humble opinion," she added, "it's rude to enjoy my father's hospitality when you have no intention of giving anything back."

"I knew there was a catch," she muttered.

"A rather large one," the princess agreed.

"Accept an invitation to lunch and now I've gotta be a princess."

"It's not so bad. All right, that was a lie."

Christina laughed unwillingly.

"Maybe it would help you to consider what your parents might have wanted for you." A yellow stripe joined the blue one, followed by a shaky red one. The painting looked like a fucked-up rainbow. "If they were still around, what would they say about it?"

"Well…" Christina leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Which, in addition to cherubs, gods, and goddesses, had a large rainbow on it… so that's what she was painting. "I never knew my dad. And my mom worked pretty hard most of her life … she usually had at least two jobs. We had to move around a lot… I never really got to make any friends. It was just the two of us. And then—and then it was just me. So, there's really no contest She would have told me to go for the brass ring, and kick the crud out of anybody who got in my way."

Alexandria pursed her (perfect, pink) lips and nodded. "Well, then."

"Except.. . what makes me different from the rest of the throng, if I take your brother for the dough?"

"The very fact that you're asking that question makes you different. Also, we all enjoy it enormously when you yell at the king, so you simply must linger."

"What am I, the court jester?" she grumbled.

"No. But you might be a princess."

"Great."

Still. Alexandria was certainly giving her a lot to think about. She was beautiful, and sly… asking the what would your mama say? question clinched it. Her mom would have been overjoyed, thrilled, ecstatic. It would have been worth putting up with the pomp of a royal wedding just to see her mom's face light up.

❮❯