Christina flung herself into the chair on the other side of the desk and buried her head in her hands. "Don't even start with that."
"Hey, it's meant to be, kiddo."
"How can Betty resist this?" he bragged, jerking a thumb at himself. Broad-shouldered, his mane of thick black hair sprinkled with silver, his piercing blue eyes bracketed with laugh lines, the tall, fit monarch had a disturbingly good point. "ReadUS magazine if you don't believe me: I'm a catch, baby."
"Al. Please. I'm begging you."
"What do you care? Don't you have your hands full with Dara and David, not to mention being the Crown Princess? You're probably supposed to be doing something right this minute—"
Edmund coughed. "Signing off on the menu for Easter weekend."
"—but you're in here yakking about Alex. What, you gotta worry about my love life, too?"
"Yes, Al, I have to," she snapped. "We all have to. I think it's safe to say your love life is a global concern."
"Bullshit. Hey, Edmund, whereis Betty this week, anyway?"
"Her note advises Queen Elizabeth is conducting business in Scotland."
"Bullshit! I just saw her onCNN this morning, hanging out at Buckingham for something or other."
"I'm sure Her Majesty the Queen did not deliberately deceive Your Majesty."
"Ha!" Chris said. "Looks like being separated by a continentand an ocean isn't enough… she's gotta make her secretaries lie to you."
"She will be mine," the king vowed, circling DEPRIVATION.
"You sound like a bad movie villain," the princess snorted. "You've gotta drop the whole 'uniting the houses of Baranov and Windsor' thing. You've just got to. It didn't work five years ago, a year ago, or right now. Don't you think we have enough problems?"
"My courtship is not one of your problems, hon," the king said mildly.
"Says you," she muttered, staring at the ceiling.
"Why don't you make yourself useful? Go gimmee Dara," the king ordered. "I've got some toys for her."
"Al, she's buried in toys. You've got to try to control yourself. The kid's got over 600 teddy bears at last count."
"A few stuffed animals never hurt anyone."
"A few! I tried to find her in her crib the other day and changed a Raggedy Ann doll by mistake."
"Well, honey, you're kind of an idiot."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Your Highness."
"Let's get back on topic," the king said, circling CHAOTIC. "Alex is taking off to find a cure for her insomnia, Dara's the greatest baby in the history of babyhood, her mom's not too bright, and Queen Elizabeth is secretly in love with me."
"I can think of at least three things wrong with that statement," Christina said.
"Only three, Highness?"
"Maybe I should go with her," she said, lapsing into a low mutter no one had ever been able to decipher. "Maybe mmm hmmm bmmm hmmm."
"No," the king said. "She's a big girl. She doesn't need you to come along and bring the nag machine."
"Nobody does, Sir," Edmund coughed.
"Oh, come on, Al. It'll be fun. I can bring Dara! She's never been to America. And you know Alex loves that baby. It's the only way she can sleep sometimes, if she brings the baby to bed with her."
"Forget it, Chris. First off, you have to get my permissionand Congress's before you take an underage heir out of the country. Second—"
"Goddamn it! She's my kid, too, Al, and she's got dual citizenship."
"Which doesn't cancel the fact that she's an Alaskan citizen, not to mention the heir of the Crown Prince. Kid's probably gonna be queen of Alaska someday, you can't take her to McDonald's without me knowing about it, life sucks, go cry in a bag of money."
"Al, you're killing me! Don't get me started on thatstupid law—"
"Hey, I don't make the rules."
"You do too!"
"Just saying. Besides, even if you could get your bad self organized in time, it's not a good idea. The baby's a crutch for Alex. I think we can all agree on that."
Since she couldn't argue, Christina remained silent.
"This is something Alex needs to do, alone, we've all agreed on that. And Alex wouldn't be going ifshe didn't agree. Kid's as stubborn as a tick."
"Yet another mysterious recessive gene," Edmund said to the air.
They ignored him. "Anyway. You stay put. Alex goes. And Elizabeth… my sweet, sweet Elizabeth…"
"Can you grab that letter opener and stab me with it?" Christina begged Edmund. "Make it quick, but be thorough."
"I'm sorry, Your Highness. I need to see to my own end before anyone else's."
"You two are hilarious," the king snapped, circling OBSCENITY. "Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out."
The North Dakota Institute for Sea Life
Minot, North Dakota
"… it's just such a thrill for us, Your Majesty!"
"Thank you." Alex didn't bother to correct the woman, though only reigning monarchs were referred to as "Majesty." As a lowly princess, Alex would be "Your Highness" unless she became queen which, given the fact that Christina and David were senior to her in the line of succession, was unlikely.
Please, God, let it be unlikely.
Their tour guide had of course been briefed, but people were usually nervous about meeting a member of royalty. Alex herself was nervous about meeting dentists, so she could relate.
And, as an American, Dr. Tiegel didn't have to call her that, or bow… which she had also forgotten. But there was no need to correct her, because…
"Just a reminder, Dr. Tiegel," Jenny said pleasantly, hurrying to stay abreast of the two women. "Please refer to the princess as Princess Alexandria."
"It's nothing," Alex said with a soothing smile. "It's just a lot of silly protocol, isn't it? There are certainly more important things to worry about, don't you think?"
Instantly at ease, Dr. Tiegel, a plump brunette in her forties, giggled. She was wearing thede rigueur white lab coat over a dark pink suit. Her cream-colored blouse sported a bow at the throat the size of Dr. Tiegel's head. Her glossy dark hair was in a Dorothy Hamill bob, further proof that the woman was stuck in the seventies.
"I guess I'm a little nervous. They don't—I mean, I'm from Pierre. South Dakota," she added helpfully. "I've never met a princess before. We're so happy you came to oversee the grand opening."
"It was my great pleasure, and Alaska's." She was trying not to wrinkle her nose, knowing she would soon get used to the smell offish, penguins, and the offal of sea life. They had all posed for the press outside, but now, in the wee hours, they had the aquarium to themselves. It was a spacious, beautiful building, and the animals Alex could see looked clean, alert, and happy. Many of the exhibits were empty; the NDISL was a work in progress.
"This work is so important, to all of us," she continued. "King Alexander has a special fondness for this sort of thing—he had to pay for the Crown Prince's doctorate in Marine Biology."
Dr. Tiegel giggled again. "We're so glad you could clear your schedule. I guess your brother's busy with his baby?"
"Yes, and he's overseeing the renovation of six aquariums in Alaska." In addition to putting up with Christina, Edmund, their father, helping Christina test the recipes for her cookbook, and teaching Dara her ABCs. Not to mention the Geneva thing nobody could get out of.
Suddenly, Alex was glad to be away. A line from Tolkien popped into her head: "The wide world is all about you; you can fence yourself in, but you cannot for ever fence it out." That sounded like as good a cure for bad dreams as anything.
"We're going to start with the penguin exhibit, if that's all right."
"Of course, as you wish, Dr. Tiegel. And I have to admit, I got a kick out of it when I heard. A land-locked aquarium struck me as unusual."
"Oh, no," Dr. Tiegel said seriously. "There are aquariums in Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, and Utah, just to name a few. I think you could make a case that they're even more important in places where you wouldn't be able to learn about the oceans on your own."
"I never thought about it like that. Thank you for enlightening me. Shall we start the tour? Where is Doctor…" She consulted her itinerary. "Dr. Rivers?"
"Oh, um, Dr. Rivers can't—he isn't—I'm going to do the tour. I mean, I'm honored to do the tour."
Alex raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. It was unusual for an itinerary to change at the last moment, and she could tell her security team—Reynolds, Danielson, and Krenklov—didn't like it one bit. Jenny was murmuring to Danielson, doubtless telling him there was nothing to worry about. Alex didn't especially care. She had never been remotely concerned about herown safety.
"I don't want to put you to any trouble," she said automatically.
"Oh no no no. It's no trouble at all, Princess."
"Is Dr. Rivers ill?" Jenny asked sharply. She would, Alex knew, take any last minute problems as personally as a slap to the head.
"Oh no no no. No. He's fine. He's just—" Alex looked on with interest while Dr. Tiegel stuttered and stammered. Finally, she took pity on the woman.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the facility."
"Oh, it's a wonderful—you'll love it. Well, we all love it, and we hope you do, too. Okay, well, to begin, as you know, this is the North Dakota Institute for Sea Life. We're a nonprofit organization, funded by corporations, private donors, and, of course…" Hazel eyes twinkled. "… Alaska. If you'll follow me, we'll skirt around the outermost edge of the penguin tank…"