Nicole bit her lower lip. “I see.” She cleared her throat. “Well, two things. We can’t ever know what was going on with Queen Dara. Maybe she fell in love. Maybe she was lonely. Maybe she made a mistake and was sorry later. Don’t let that stupid piece of paper ruin your good memories of her. My—our father told me that the pain of a loved one’s death goes away, leaving good memories. And that’s what you have of your mom, Nicky. The good memories.”
Impassively, he said, “You said two things.”
“I’m sure you understand that in Dad’s heart you’ll be his son until the planets cave in on themselves.”
He smiled thinly. “That’s the second time.”
“The second time you’ve called him Dad since you came in here.”
“Was it? I hadn’t realized.” Hmm. That was weird. It had sort of slipped out without her noticing.
“But see, it’s okay.”
“I’ve always felt like a changeling child, and now I know why. But it’s okay. I think it was time for me to stop wondering and find out for sure. And I could only do that because of you. I think…I think I was meant to find out the king wasn’t my father because part of me knew you were coming. With you here he still has the same number of children, you see.”
“No, Nicky, he doesn’t. He’s got one more, that’s all. Even if he knew, he’d never disown you, never cast you out. You’re his son and that’s all there is.”
“I just don’t know—” The boy clenched his fists and tried to lock back the tears. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I should tell him or not. But since you went through this kind of thing not long ago, you’re the only one I can talk to. The bastard princess. But what does that make me?”
“His son, Nicky. That’s what it makes you. As for this?” She crumpled it in her fist and tossed it into the fireplace; then she got up, lit a match from the gold box on the mantel, and incinerated the DNA test into ash. “It’s your business, Nicky, and no one else’s. And I swear to you by my mother, I’ll never tell. The bastard princess is a coward, but not a liar.”
Nicky wiped his cheeks and said, surprised, “You’re not a coward. I think you’re very brave.”
“Well, I’m not. But I’m going to try to be. Damned if I’ll be shamed by a child.”
“I’m not a—”
“I know, I know, sorry. Anyway, come on, Prince Nicky. I was headed into town for coffee when you beeped Natalia, but now I feel the need for Dairy Queen. Let’s go drown our sorrows in thousands of calories.”
Shyly, he took her hand, and brother and sister left the suite of the youngest Baranov, the bastard prince.
J effrey Rodinov rose in the middle of the morning with his mind made up. He shaved, showered, dressed, and called the super to report the damage Nicole had done to the sliding glass door.
Then he drove to the palace, found Edmund, and tendered his resignation.
“Absolutely not,” was the reply, to his shock.
“Mr. Dante, there are circumstances—you don’t understand—my duty is conflicting with—”
“The desire to impregnate Princess Nicole; yes; I gathered as much. Your resignation is not accepted.”
“But sir! I—”
“I can’t take it, Jeffrey; I absolutely can’t take it!” Edmund (horrors!) yelled. Jeffrey thought, The king died and nobody told me. That’s the only reason Edmund Dante would ever raise his voice or forget to comb his hair.
“Sir, maybe you’d better—”
“Go on a killing spree,” he snapped. “I am surrounded by people having irresponsible sex!”
Shocked, Jeffrey had no reply.
Edmund visibly calmed himself. “Your resignation is not accepted. For heaven’s sake, Jeffrey, look around you. This is Alaska. The royals marry subjects all the time. The greatest queen our country has ever seen used to be a maid. Also, there is no rule that says a princess may not bone her bodyguard.”
Jeffrey was shocked into silence by Edmund’s use of the word bone as a verb.
“Now, the king will give you nine kinds of holy hell about it, but that’s your problem, not mine. Do you see the bags under my eyes, man? I cannot take another upheaval to the schedule. You will not quit.”
“But Nicole—I mean, Her Highness—”
“—is at the Dairy Queen with the youngest prince. If you hurry, you can catch them.”
Jeffrey turned, already groping in his pockets for his car keys. “With all respect, this isn’t over, Mr. Dante.”
“With zero respect, it certainly is, Jeffrey. Best of luck.”
“Sir, are you all right?”
“I am a thousand yards from all right. Run along now.”
Jeffrey ran along.
Jeffrey saw two detail automobiles parked in the driveway, and judging by all the citizens pressed to the windows, deduced Nicole was eating her ice cream inside one of the sedans.
He rapped on one dark window, which slowly slid down.
“Hi, Jeffrey!” Prince Nicholas called. Nicole was sitting beside her brother, closest to the window. “Want a cone? Is your vacation over already?”
“Yes,” he said grimly.
“What are you doing here?” Nicole asked, clearly surprised.
“I’ll get to that in a moment.”
“Guess what?” Nicholas continued. “Dad’s having sex and Alex is pregnant. And Christina’s been such a bitch lately we think she is, too. Isn’t that the most terrifying news you’ve ever heard?”
“Not this week, Highness. I—wait. The king is what?” He mentally shook himself. “Never mind. Please excuse me.” He pressed a button on his two-way and the locks disengaged. Then he opened the door and yanked Nicole out.
“Hey! My Peanut Buster Parfait!”
He took her hand in his and led her to the other sedan, rapped on the driver’s side window, and said to Natalia, “Out.”
“Yes, sir.” She got out.
“Don’t talk to Natalia like that! Natalia, I’m sorry. He’s an asshole.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Nicole took a steadying breath, shrugged, and climbed into the backseat. He turned to Natalia and said, “I’ll need a few minutes of privacy.”
“For what?” was her almost-but-not-quite-sarcastic request as he got in and shut and locked the doors.
“There’s easier ways to get a bite of my parfait,” she informed him. Then she was juggling the plastic tub of ice cream as he crushed her to him and kissed her until he thought he might bruise her. Then he eased up.
“Not that I mind, but this isn’t exactly discreet, and I thought you were all about being—”
“Be my wife.”
“Marry me. Make me a prince.”
“You mean you’re in love with me for my title?” she teased, but he could tell she was rattled.
“All this time I’ve been coming at it from the wrong end.”
She reddened. “If you’re talking about what we tried later last night, I told you, that happens to every guy now and—”
“I’ve been trying to reconcile my duty with one-night stands with the Crown Princess of Alaska. But I don’t want a number of one-night stands, Nicole. I want you, for the rest of your life. And mine. Marry me and make me a prince, and as long as I’m by your side, you’ll never want for family again.”
“Actually,” she said quietly, “I’m kind of getting used to them. My family.”
“Oh.” He felt his heart actually shrink in his chest. Of course, the famous Baranov bounce: They came back from every shock, every disaster, stronger than ever. He should have known. She didn’t need him. She had never needed him.
And he was a fool.
“I see,” he said stiffly, leaning away from her. “Then you have no need of me, or my proposal, so I—”
“Hold on, Jeffrey, I didn’t say no, did I?”
“Nicole,” he said stonily, “don’t play with me like this.”
“Who’s playing? You’re the one who keeps jumping to conclusions. Yes, I’ll marry you. Yes, I’ll make you a prince, and later, much much later by the grace of God, the King of Alaska.”
She took another bite of her ice cream, chewed, and swallowed while his heart slowly resumed something resembling a normal rhythm. “You will? I mean, you do?”
“At first I thought it was because you didn’t sulk after I got the drop on you that first day. Then I thought it was because you kept coming back to my old fishing guide job. Then I thought it was because you’re really really good in bed. But now I think—”
“I think,” she said, pausing to lick the spoon, “it’s because it’s something my mother would have wanted for me. And I think it’s because you’re the best angler I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure I fell in love with you when I watched you tie on that sinker the day we went fishing.”
He slumped back in the seat with relief. “Thank God.”
Then he gathered her in his arms, ignoring her squealed, “I’m spilling my parfait!” and kissed her until they were both panting and covered with ice cream.
“By the way,” he said, pulling back to catch his breath. “Who is the king having sex with?”
“Don’t even ask, Jeffrey. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Y ou’re what?” the king screamed.
“Getting married. Oh, and having gobs of sex,” Nicole added helpfully, ignoring Jeffrey’s horrified groan.
“But you’ve only known each other a fucking week!”