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“You’re one of them,” he accused, pointing a trembling, banana-sized finger at Christina. “Her husband said! Yesterday!”

“Oh, no,” Nicole assured him, but she was looking at Jeffrey as she said it. “Not ever.”

“Blood will tell, honey.”

Then, in unison, she and Christina said, “Don’t call me honey.”

Alone, Christina added, “See, see? Your reputation precedes you!”

“Is that so?”

“Yup.”

“And you think I’m an in-law.”

“Don’t think. Know.”

“So, if you were trying to talk one of them into something they absolutely did not want to do, how do you think it would go?”

Christina opened her mouth. Then closed it. Then opened it again, looking remarkably salmon-like. Then she glared. “Don’t confuse me with facts.”

“That’s a valid warning,” Jeff added.

“Pipe down, Jeff-rey. One thing I’ve learned living with some of the richest people in the world is that everyone has a price. So what’s yours?”

“What?”

“What’s it gonna cost to get you to come with me and submit to our DNA test?”

“Are you implying that you can pay me?” To turn my back on my mother and everything she ever did for me? God! They were all the same! “You bitch!” Then she socked her. Almost. Jeffrey moved like lightning, so she actually socked him in the throat (she’d been aiming for Christina’s left eye).

“Hey!” Christina yelled as Nicole’s boss clawed for his wastebasket and started retching. “Rule number one: Nobody roughs up the help!”

Then Nicole saw black stars explode as Christina socked her back.

Chapter 13

“O w ow OW!” Nicole yelled, regaining consciousness. She opened her eyes, then groaned in equal parts pain and horror. About a hundred people were crouching over her.

“—didn’t mean for her to hit her head!”

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“Christina, for Christ’s sake. We sent you to be a diplomat—ever heard of the word?”

“Ma’am,” a paramedic said, ripping the blood pressure cuff off Nicole’s arm, “can you tell me where you are?”

“The seventh circle of hell,” Nicole answered.

Christina elbowed two other Baranovs out of the way and peered down anxiously. “I’m so sorry, Nicole. I only meant to give you a black eye.”

“That’s an apology?” the crown prince demanded.

“I didn’t mean for you to hit your head on the boss’s desk when you fell!”

“How—how did you all get here so fast?” She was looking around, and in addition to two paramedics, she recognized Princess Kathryn, Prince Nicholas, Crown Prince David, Prince Alexander, Princess Alexandria, King Alexander, and her brand-new nemesis, Christina. “Does the palace have a teleporter pad?”

“You’ve been out cold for twenty minutes,” Prince Alexander, a shorter, younger version of his brother David, told her. “We had tons of time to get here. I’m Alexander, by the way.”

She clapped a hand over her eyes. “I know who you are. I know who you all are.” Her head was on the firmest pillow ever. Who knew Freeborg kept—

“Are you okay, kiddo?” the king asked anxiously. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Now that’s rude,” Prince Alexandria said approvingly.

“All of you back off and give her some air,” Jeffrey ordered from—ulp—directly above her. She realized with equal parts heat and cold that the pillow was him, and her head was in his lap.

As one, the royal family took three steps back.

“Your vitals are fine,” the other paramedic was telling her, “but with such a long loss of consciousness I think we should run her to the hos—”

“No hospital. No doctors. No way.”

“Ma’am—”

“I’ll sign the NMA.”

“NMA?” she heard the youngest, sixteen-year-old Nicholas, whisper to his sister Kathryn.

“No Medical Attention,” Kathryn replied. “Means if she falls down the stairs and breaks both legs while barfing up blood, she can’t sue.”

Nicole almost laughed at the mental image, but managed to mask it as a groan of pain as she sat up.

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“If you come to the hospital, you could get a prescription…” one of the paramedics wheedled.

“First someone tries to bribe me with money, now Vicodin? Do I have ‘weak loser’ written on my forehead?”

“Christina Baranov!” the king roared.

To Nicole’s vast enjoyment, Christina backed away from the red-faced king so fast she nearly tripped and went sprawling. “I didn’t try to bribe her with money! I just said everyone had their price!”

“Oh, I can see how that wasn’t offensive,” Prince Alexander snarked.

“Shut the hell up, Alex. I meant like how I got the run of the kitchens when I got here. I just thought maybe she’d like her own lake or something.”

“A fine plan,” Alexandria observed, squinting down at Nicole. “Good job, Christina. Really. Hey, Dad, let’s put her in charge of defusing the situation in China.”

“Hand it over,” Nicole told the paramedics, who were packing up.

“What?”

“The blood you stole while I was conked.”

The paramedics looked at each other with superbly faked expressions of confusion. “Blood we—”

“Nicole!”

“Stop yelling, it hurts my head!” she yelled back.

Half the light was blotted out when the king pointed a finger at her. “The Baranovs do not steal. Apologize at once.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said sweetly, “that you’re sensitive about being called thieves after your ancestors stole the country from its rightful owner, Mother Russia.”

There was a long, awful silence broken by Nicholas saying, “Screw the blood test. I’m convinced.”

“If she doesn’t have a legitimate DNA test supervised by our own docs in the palace, Edmund will murder us all in our beds,” David explained to his siblings.

“Hold your breath waiting for that to happen.”

“Which part?” Kathryn asked.

“Will you all keep it down?” Jeffrey rumbled from behind her. He was still sitting behind her, like she might (ha!) get dizzy and fall back in his lap again. “You’re upsetting her.”

“She punched you in the larynx, Jeff.”

“Is that why he sounds so dreadful?” Kathryn whispered to her brother Alexander.

David knelt beside her, and when he spoke, it was with so much sympathy she could hardly bear it. “It will happen, Nicole. It has to. See, if you’re really a Baranov, which everyone in this room knows you are, that means you’re first in line for the throne.”

“But—but you and Christina Quickknuckles are the crown prince and—”

“Nicole, you’re older. Think about it.”

She did. Then she crawled to her boss’s wastebasket and threw up.

Chapter 14

“O h dear,” Edmund said.

“Then she hit her head and got knocked out.”

“Oh.”

“For twenty minutes.”

“Uhm.”

“And wouldn’t go to the hospital.”

“Naturally.”

“Then David laid it out for her.”

“‘Laid it out’?”

“Don’t play dumb.”

“Oh, never, my king. But at times it seems to me you have your own code. And I left my secret royal decoder ring in my other pants.”

“You know, how she’s now first in line for the throne.” Alaska was famous for doing it by birth order, not sex.

“Ah.”

“Then she barfed.”

“A reaction I myself have nearly every week.”

“Then Jeff kicked us all out. I think in his heart she’s one of us, so he thinks he’s her bodyguard,” the king said approvingly. It was early that afternoon, and the king was enjoying a beer. Edmund drank coffee and played with the oft-neglected paperwork.

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“Oh, is that what he thinks?”

“Sure. Then Jeff took her home and we all came back here. I think Christina’s still sulking in her suite.”

“Majesty, is there a question of lawsuit against—”

“No, because Nicole threw the first punch.”

“Very well.”

“Of course,” the king mused, taking a swig of Bud, “that might be leverage. You know, ‘cooperate or we’ll tell the world you tried to coldcock the crown princess.’ I get the feeling she’d hate publicity.”

“My king, you have read none of the newspapers I so carefully laid out for you.”

“Yes, I have.”

“No,” Edmund said, holding up that morning’s edition of The Juneau Empire. “You haven’t.”

BASTARD PRINCESS FOUND WORKING FOR

OUTER BANKS CO.

Sitka Palace denies comment.

The king hurriedly drained his beer. “Oh, fuck me,” he groaned.

“With regret, I do decline.”

“I’m gonna barf.”

“Then it must be Thursday. And, my king, you have yet one more worry.”

“Nothing can be worse than this.”

“Think hard,” Edmund advised.

“I’m in no mood for riddles, Edmund, so just—”

His office door was slammed open and his arch enemy, Holly Bragon (“rhymes with dragon”), stood framed in the doorway. She waved that day’s newspaper at him and crowed, “Bastard Princess! I fucking love it!”

“Get me another beer,” he said. “Get me a six pack. Get me three six packs.” Then, to the Dragon, “I fired your ass last week.”

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