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07.03.2019

So was it stupid to do something to please her mother lying in her grave these ten years? Or was it the beginning of compassion?

"Okay."

"Okay, what?"

"Okay, I'll do it. I'll marry you."

David accidentally ran the cart into the wall. Silver platters flew everywhere with a clang.

"For crying out loud," Christina said, watching scrambled eggs soar through the air, "maybe I should have broken it to you more gently."

She'd met him just outside the gallery—in fact, he'd nearly run over her foot with the damned cart.

"I'm just—surprised, that's all. Happily surprised," he added hastily. He moved to her to take her hand, slipped on a piece of bacon, and she ended up steadying him. "You won't regret it, Christina," he gasped, leaning on her for support. "You've made me a very happy man."

"We'll see, Penguin Boy," she said. "And listen— if it gets too weird—not that that could ever happen—I'm outta here, and the engagement's off, got it?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, of course. And, of course, that applies to me, too."

"Sure, that's fine."

"Well, no. That was a bluff. I could never break our engagement."

"Okay." Weird. "I guess … should we kiss? Sort of to seal the—mmph!"

The guy was a mind reader! Or he'd slipped again and fallen on her mouth. Either way, they were sealing the deal. And it wasn't bad at all. He either hadn't spent enough time in the penguin room to reek, or she'd gotten used to it. All she could smell was bacon, and his own clean scent His mouth was firm on hers, his hand on the back of her neck was wonderfully strong—normally she didn't care for that, but with David it was like she was protected rather than smothered.

"—my father right away."

"Mmmm—huh?" Nuts. All done kissing. She stared at his mouth. Really, truly all done? Yes, dammit. Worse, he was still talking.

"—said, let's go tell my father right away."

"Oh. Okay. Uh … but maybe not the rest of the world? Right away?"

"As you wish." He grinned at her, his blue eyes twinkling, grabbed her hand, and they ran through the spilled food.

Chapter 9

From The Queen of the Edge of the World, by Edmund Dante HI, © 2089, Harper Zebra and Schuster Publications.

As one can imagine (and if one has been paying close attention to this tome), the king was as overjoyed at the news of the crown prince's engagement as Edmund Dante was appalled.

Princess lessons were to begin at once, designers and planners were commissioned, and a date was set for five months hence. .. April the second. Normally that would be a shockingly short time for a royal engagement, but the general consensus seemed to be to "get it done" before the bride-to-be could change her mind and flee the country.

But first, Edmund Dante was to try one last time to talk the feisty commoner out of her wedding. It is difficult to tell if he did it for his own sake, the country's, or the future queen's.

And Queen Christina's reaction to this attempt gives historians another tantalizing glimpse into what drove this foreigner of uncommon strength to take a crown.

"Miss Krabbe …"

"Call me Christina. Or Chris. Anything but Tina . . . yech. My mom hates her name her whole life, and what does she do? Slaps it on the end of my name. Nice!"

"Miss Christina, are you sure you have considered this very carefully?"

"And by that he means, congratulations," the king said, glaring at Edmund from his seat.

Edmund forced a smile, which disappeared as quickly as it formed. "You haven't been in the country a week, you barely know His Highness, and frankly… ah … frankly…"

"I'm not the princess type?" She tucked her legs beneath her and grinned at him. "Tell someone who doesn't know."

"Edmund…"

They were in one of the sitting rooms, and the king had called for beer to celebrate the announcement of their engagement. He'd downed two in rapid succession and apparent relief. Christina had taken a sip, masterfully concealed a shudder, and handed her glass to David.

"Your Majesty, please. It must be said. And it appears to have fallen to me."

"Who says?" the king whined. "You're gonna queer the deal, and then I'll be forced to break both your legs."

"A lively ending," the prince commented, "to an unparalleled career."

"It isn't fair," Edmund said quietly. "Look to the House of Windsor if you don't believe me. She must be warned."

"Fine, fine, but get it out of the way. And don't higher, for Christ's sake."

"Too late," Christina sang. David, in the act of sitting down beside her, barked surprised laughter and fell to the sofa with a thump.

Edmund turned back to Christina. He towered over her like a tree dressed in fine linen. His hands were clasped—clenched—behind his back. "I—we, rather, wish to be sure you know what you're getting into. It's not all palace living and cocktail sauce."

"It's not?"

"As a member of the royal family, not only will the eyes of the world—"

"Not to mention People magazine."

"—be on you, but you'll have heavy responsibilities. Also—"

"Also," she interrupted yet again, "my children will never have to worry about their next meal. They'll never have to pay taxes, they'll never have to worry about how to afford to send their kids to college. They'll always have the option of a solid roof over their heads, and three squares a day. There will always be people around to look after them and protect them. They'll never, never be alone. And if they see something wrong, they'll have the power to fix it."

Dead silence.

"That about right?"

"Yes." David nodded, studying her intently. "That is exactly right. All that, and more. And all that goes for your children's children, and your children's children's children."

"Well. All right, then." She smiled, and instantly felt like she’d jettisoned ten pounds of stress. Maybe twenty. "If there's nothing else, Edmund, let's get this show on the road.

PART TWO

Getting married's probably not so bad. It's all the screwing around beforehand that gives you a migraine.

—Lady Christina of Allen Hall

Chapter 10

"Ah, Lady Christina, I'm not sure how to ask this…"

"Well, first off, I'm not a lady," she said.

"No kidding," David said, grinning. He stopped grinning when one of the royal wedding designers forced a pointed black shoe onto his left foot. "Uh, can we try one that's not so—er—Machiavellian? Also, I can't feel my toes."

"I mean," Christina said, flipping through one of eighteen sketchbooks, "it's not my tide or anything. I'm just plain old Christina."

"Not true," David grunted, trying to free himself of the shoe.

"Oh, so I've had a tide all these years that I never knew about? Hmm, let's think about this; do you think I inherited it from my truck driver dad or my waitress mom?"

"With due respect, my lady, the king tells me your title is Lady Christina of Allen Hall."

She nearly fell out of her chair. "Since when? And where the hell is that? And do ladies wear blue jeans? Because, if nobody's noticed, jeans make up about ninety-eight percent of my wardrobe."

David snickered. "Allen Hall is the part of the palace where Dad lets me keep the penguins."

"Oh, ugh! Very fucking funny. Remind me to kick the king in the slats when I see him next."

"Looks better on the invitations if you've got a tide, even if it's minor. I thought you'd be happy."

"Then you haven't been paying attention the last two weeks, boy-o."

"You're right," he admitted, shrugging into the black silk coat held by another designer. "I didn't really think you'd be happy. But you know Dad… once he's got his mind made up . . ."

"Oh, yeah, he's not like anybody else I know." Christina glared at David for good measure, completely overlooking the fact that she could be talking about herself. "Now, what were you asking me, Harry?"

"Horrance, my lady. And I was asking—ah—if your dress—your wedding gown, rather—if it— ah—"

"White," she said firmly.

"Right, then," Horrance said hurriedly, clapping a sketchbook shut and unwrapping a fresh one. He squinted at Christina and started sketching broad swoops across the paper.

"Reeeeeally?" David asked with a friendly leer.

"Sure," she replied evenly. "It's my first wedding, isn't it?"

"Ah … hmm." The six people in the room could easily read the MYOB vibes Lady Christina was giving off, so David acted the gentleman and changed the subject. "What d'you think of this suitcoat?"

"I think it makes you look embalmed."

Horrance whimpered.

"Hey, it's nice and all," she added, backpedaling madly, "but it's just not him. You know what you should wear? White. It'd really set off your hair." Your gorgeous, thick, black-as-sin hair. . . mmm . . .

"The bride wears white," Horrance's assistant— what was his name? Jerry? Jerkin?—said firmly.

"Well, were you in the military? Because you could wear your uniform—"

"No. I was busy getting my doctorate in marine biology."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Alaska doesn't require military service from its royals."

"Whatever. So, on top of everything else, you're an egghead. Well, I can overlook that." Was it Jeremiah? Julian? "Fine, don't wear white. But don't wear a tuxedo, either. I hate the penguin look. No offense, Dr. Prince David of the Penguins."

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