She fell into step with Edmund and walked with him without once looking back.
He knew, because he was watching.
P rince Nicholas, last in line for the throne, was giving serious thought to playing baseball with the jade chess pieces the Emperor had given his great-grandfather when Edmund finally walked in with Nicole.
Edmund, of course, looked as he always did: starched and proper. Edmund was never-ending, like the tides, and never-changing, like the face of the moon, or his father, or Kathryn’s aim.
But Nicole looked like she’d been run over by a truck. Her hair was all over the place, there was something sticky (sap? mud?) on her left cheek, pine needles all over her leggings, a bloody scratch on her right arm, and her mouth looked weird, like the lips were slightly swollen or something.
“Holy crap! What happened to you?”
“A midnight hike,” she said. “Thanks for the escort, Edmund. Buh-bye.”
“Highnesses.” Edmund bowed and left.
Nicole looked around the room, noting the several dozen chess boards. “Oh, boy. The boredom generated in this room alone is trying to sap my will to live.” She turned her gaze—so like his other sisters—on him. “You were looking for me?”
This was a pleasant surprise. His other siblings took their sweet time when he needed one of them or were busy on one royal duty or another. He was the baby; he was used to the teasing and, worse, being ignored.
And Nicole was really old, older even than David! Mid thirties! That was old, man. He couldn’t believe he had to wait only ten minutes for her to show up.
“I knocked on your door but you didn’t answer, so I thought you were sleeping. But Edmund said he knew where you were. It’s kind of cold out for hiking, isn’t it?” he asked, puzzled.
“That depends,” she replied, “on who you’re hiking with. What’s up, blondie?”
“That’s why I got hauled into the Room of Perpetual Yawns? For nothing?”
“I just—I was just hoping you were doing okay.”
She gave him an odd look and sat down across from him. They both ignored the chess board between them. “As well as can be expected, I guess.”
“If I had to go live in a strange place, I might be scared. And I prob’ly wouldn’t tell anybody if I was scared. And it’s okay. If you’re scared, I mean.”
“Also,” he added, holding out a CD case, “there’s this.”
She took it and examined it. “What is it? Did you burn me a mix CD? Because I have to tell you, I’m all eighties rock, all the time.”
“Wow, you really are old.”
“What a wonderful conversation we’re having,” she muttered, and he felt bad because he forgot old people didn’t like being reminded they were old. “If this isn’t The Greatest Hits of Teena Marie, then what is it?”
“The nineteen ways I’ve found to get safely out of the palace without being seen. You keep going over the ledge like that and off the pavilion, you’re going to break an ankle.”
She stared at him. “Does everyone know that’s why I picked that suite?”
“Just me and Edmund. And probably your security detail. And maybe the Dragon. Probably the Dragon.”
“If he didn’t, he sure does now,” she muttered, which he didn’t quite get. “Does the king know?”
“No, our father doesn’t know. Are you kidding? He still thinks Kathryn’s a virgin.”
Her eyes nearly bulged out of her head. “Thaaaat’s a bit of an overshare. Let’s not do that again, okay? Okay.”
“Now I’m the only virgin in the family,” he added glumly.
“You just did it again!”
“Well, I am.”
“Don’t sweat it. Sex is overrated.”
“Really?” His brothers and sisters never talked to him about this stuff. Why would they? To him, he was always going to be the six-year-old mischief maker who didn’t look like any of them. “You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that, I just said it’s overrated. Look, when you’re a virgin, losing it is the most important thing in the world. It’s all you can think about, right? But once it’s gone, once you’ve got that whole awkward weird first time out of the way, it’s never going to be as big a deal again.”
Except she had an odd look on her face as she told him this, almost like she wasn’t sure she believed what she was saying.
“Hard to imagine,” he sighed.
“Trust me, this aged ancient knows of what she speaks. Dammit! Now I’m referring to myself in the third person.” She bounced the case up and down in her hand like a baseball. “Thanks for this. I owe you one.”
“Damn right! So keep it in mind.”
“Don’t sweat it, Curly. I never forget a favor.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re one of us. And don’t call me Curly.”
“Or I’ll blow up half of your personal belongings.”
“Yeah, listen, what is it with you and incendiary devices? Is it the typical youngest-seeking-attention thing? Or do you, uh, need to be speaking to someone? Someone with many degrees in psychiatry?”
“You’ll tell, Curly.”
“Don’t call me Curly.”
“Oh, never again, Curly.” Then she hauled him out of the chair, bounced him to the floor, and tickled him until tears were streaming down his face and he was begging her to stop.
“This might not entirely suck,” she announced as he staggered to his feet. “I never had a little brother before.”
“I’m three inches taller than you are!”
“Yeah, but your muscle mass hasn’t caught up with your height. So until then I can beat you with impunity.” She shoved him and he nearly went sprawling, scattering chess pieces like confetti. “And I shall.”
“This does entirely suck,” he informed her, lying like mad. “The last thing I needed was another older sibling.”
“Suck it up, Curly.”
“Don’t call me—don’t tickle! No! I mean it! Quit! Nicooooooole!”
K ing Al tiptoed through the outer room leading to his office, not an easy thing for a man of his height, or weight. Moving as stealthily as he could ever remember in his life, he eased the door open and slipped inside. This early, no one was likely to—
“Howdy, Big Al!”
Shit. “You! I fired you yesterday. Again! I made sure Reynolds got you on that flight! You’re supposed to be in Dallas right this second.”
“Honey, I’m from Houston. And o’course your man saw me get on board. But we refueled in Minot, and I hopped a flight back.”
“Once we were back in the U.S. of A., your men didn’t have any authority over me. But you knew I couldn’t stay away, else why all the pussyfooting at this ungodly hour?”
“I was hedging my bets. Now get lost, you hideous scribe of a she-devil.”
“Dragon,” she said, smiling. She was wearing the usual purple glasses, this time with a red suit and white jogging shoes. She jiggled her left foot like mad. “And congrats; I didn’t know you knew a great big word like scribe.”
“How big can it be? It’s one syllable.”
“Talked to the new girl yesterday,” she added, apropos of nothing. “Seems like a nice enough gal.”
“You talked to Nicole?” He gestured to a chair. “Sid-down, what’s your rush? How’s she doing? What’d she say?”
“You’re askin’ me? You’re the daddy.”
“I’m—I’m trying to give her some space. We’ve asked a lot of her this week. I don’t—I don’t want to make things worse.”
The Dragon’s mouth, normally set in a jeering smile, softened. “She’ll come around, Big Al. Who’d resist your charms?”
“Very funny,” he grumped. “So what’d she say?”
“Oh, we mostly talked about the historical prevalence of inbreeding among royalty.”
“Well, not in your family, o’course.”
He groaned again. “Thanks for that.”
“And we talked about her new digs. She sure looks like you guys. And acts like you guys. But—”
The Dragon appeared, of all things, to be choosing her words carefully. “She’s still missing her mama, o’course.”
“And that’s why you’ll have a hard time. Not because of all this.” She gestured to the magnificent office, and the king knew she meant all of it—the money, the status, the property. “But because she lost the only family she ever had. So why would she ever dare let any of y’all get close?”
The king stared at her. “You’re pretty smart, for a psychopath.”
“Aw.” The Dragon winked. “That’s what all the cute boys say.”
“J effrey, would you mind?”
“Not at all, Highness.” Her bodyguard stepped back and kicked in the door to the Outer Banks Co.
“My pleasure, Your Highness.”
Nicole brushed splinters off her shoulders and marched inside. “Freeborg, you scumbag!”
Her former boss had shoved his chair back as far as he could go without actually going out the window. He was pale, even for him. “Nicole, what—you—I mean, Your Highness—”
“You ratted me out! You blabbed to the press! You ruined my life!”
“But Nicole—I mean, Your Highness—it was going to come out anyway! We had royalty in here two days in a row! I just thought—”