"Oh, hey, no problemo! It was great to see Chris again. And great of the prince," he added with a nod at said prince fellow, who looked like he was chewing on lemon peel, "to invite me."
"Yeah. Well, listen, about that—where's your sidearm?"
"In my apartment back in L.A.," he said. "Don't worry, I didn't smuggle any firearms into your country."
Kurt blinked. The king turned to Edmund. "Get him fixed up."
"At once, Majesty."
Kurt's hand was swallowed again. "Nice meeting you, Kurt. You have any problems or questions, let me or Edmund know."
"Or even," Edmund said, "Edmund or me. If you wish to be grammatically correct."
"Uh, thanks, Mr.—uh—king."
With a wave, the king took off, leaving him with the skinny guy, and his archrival.
"Are your quarters satisfactory?" his evil nemesis asked politely.
"Yeah, dude, they're fine."
"This is a key card which will get you into the shooting range, anytime. A member of our security team will assist you in selecting a firearm. The king signed your carry permit this morning. All we ask is that when you're escorting Lady Christina—"
"Keep an eye out for the bad guys," Kurt said, instantly understanding everything. What luck! What total fucking luck! He practically snatched the key card. "No sweat. Hey, nobody's gonna mess with my ex-girlfriend, unless it's me."
Nobody laughed at his (admittedly lame) little joke.
"So you let me come back with you, and now you're giving me a gun and letting me practice on it, and letting me hang out with your—with Christina. You must really want us to get back together," he joked.
"Ah ... well... I know you aren't here to try to win her back, so to speak, and—"
"Actually, dude, I kind of am," he said, half apologetically. He cursed his hippie mother for instilling him with a scrupulous sense of honesty. "I mean, you seem like a nice guy and all, but this whole palace gig—it's just not for the Chris I know. It's just not. And I'm hoping she'll remember that if we hang out enough."
"Detective Carlson, that is entirely inappropriate behavior," Edmund said.
"Damn right!" the prince yelped.
He shrugged. "Sorry, dudes. That's the way it is."
A bump as his rival's chest touched his. Hmm. The rival was pretty solidly built. And about three inches taller. "Shoot your mouth off all you like," he growled, "but be sure to keep your hands to yourself, or I'll cut them off."
"Oh, yeah? They still do that up here?"
"Edmund! Off with his head!"
"Sadly, Your Highness, I left my axe in my other pants."
"Well, start carrying one," the prince snapped, then stormed out.
"Uh ... he was kidding, right? I mean, I read up on the guy. He's a marine biologist or a zookeeper or something."
"Yes, of course, sir. A marine biologist descended from a royal family known for cutting the Gordian knot as opposed to untying it."
"I don't know what that means."
"It means," Edmund said, just before his more restrained exit, "welcome to Alaska."
"How," Prince David demanded by way of greeting, "could your tattoo have escaped my notice?"
Christina paused in mid-chomp, then put her tomato sandwich back on the plate. She'd successfully seen Kurt tucked into his room and decided to treat herself to a snack. She was eating in one of the sunrooms, the one with the view of the ocean, today a mild slice of blue in the distance. The tomato was a rich, ripe red—a good trick for this time of the year—and drippy. She wiped her chin with her forearm and asked, "What bit you on the ass today?"
"Note how she didn't answer my question."
"What I'm noting is that you've picked up Eds's icky habit of referring to me in the third person. And it's a fine question—how did my tattoo escape your notice?"
"Well..." He sat down across from her, oblivious to the drenching beauty of the scene. As usual, she was momentarily distracted by his extreme yumminess. "We're usually in a hurry—"
"Because you never know when Nicky or Al or Alex or Alex or Jenny or Eds will burst in on us— so not conducive to horniness, by the way."
"—and it's usually dark—"
"And cramped," Christina added, smiling. "And sometimes furry. I still say we find that closet again."
He looked distracted, then shook himself. "So, where is it?"
"You're asking me? I still need a map to find the bathroom."
"I mean," he said through gritted teeth, "your tattoo."
"Oh, dear." She picked up her sandwich and took a bite. "After all those closet gropings, you have to ask?"
He slumped back in his chair and stared out the window. "Well, if you don't want to tell me ..."
"It's not so much that I don't want to tell you, it's that I think you should find out for your— yeeeek!" The plate went flying, her tomato slices parted ways with the bread, her chair slammed back onto the floor, her legs went over her head, and then he was nuzzling her neck and groping under her shirt. "Subtlety, thy name is not—that tickles!" Her legs sticking up in the air as they were, it was difficult to get leverage to fend him off. Not that she entirely wanted to. Still, her pride was at stake. "David, for God's sake, it's noon and the door to the sunroom's wide open and we're not exactly well—hidden—God, your fingers are cold!" A horrid thought crossed her mind. "You didn't come from the penguins to me, did you, you fucking pervert?"
He'd pulled her shirt over her head and seemed temporarily stymied by her bra—ha! Back clasps. "No," he said. "It's just chilly in here today."
Not for much longer! Yow. "David," she giggled into his throat, "will you cut it out? I'll tell you, all right?"
"Kurt knows," he muttered, peeking under a bra strap.
"Ancient history, Penguin Boy, and we already had this conversation, remember? What, it's my fault you've been in such a hurry to get some that you never bothered to look for distinctive markings?"
He scowled at her. "So you're saying it's my fault you went out and got yourself marked with permanent ink like some sort of biker lady?"
"Chick, David, biker chick, and no, but the only reason you're in here with your cold fingers is because you're mad at Kurt." She pushed her hair out of her face to give him a glare of her own. "Which is so totally dumb, by the way, I mean— why'd you invite him in the first place?"
He muttered something she couldn't quite catch, then they both froze when they heard footsteps. He kicked the chair, which wobbled back upright, snapped open the lock on the French door, and hauled her out onto the balcony. He glanced down, observed the four-foot drop, then booted her over.
"My sandwich!" she wailed on the way down.
He landed beside her in a crouch and tackled her. Cripes! At least the grass was warm. The few patches that had escaped the snow! Fucking ten-month Alaskan winters . . .
"Not to mention your shirt," he said, and whatever weird mood he'd been in seemed to have passed, because he was grinning at her. "Now let's hope whoever it is doesn't look out the window."
"They're gonna be too busy peeling tomato slices off the wall." She shivered in the chill spring air. "You owe me lunch, buckaroo."
"Done and done." He peeked into her cleavage.
"For God's sake." She sat up, shoved him away, presented her back to him, and unsnapped her bra.
There was a long silence, followed by his "Oh."
"It's an albatross."
"Congratulations, Dr. Baranov, those years of college when you never had sex appear to have paid off." She snapped her bra again and started to stand, but he held her down with a hand. Weirdly, he was still frowning.
"An albatross, Christina."
"Yes, David, I know, I'm the one who paid for it," she said patiently. Why was he looking at her so strangely? "Anybody who tells you tattoos don't hurt is a fucking liar, by the way. I figured, smack in the middle of my back, where my bra strap hides it, something small—and it still hurt!"
"A royal albatross, in fact."
"Now, don't go reading too much into this," she warned.
His eyes were faraway and he wasn't looking at her anymore, he was staring at the sea. "It's a large seabird that regularly circles the globe."
"Are you channeling Marlin Perkins now?"
He ignored her interruption. "In fact, it's a seabird famous for never lingering long in one place. In fact, it spends only about a tenth of its life on land .. . the rest of the time it's on the move."
"Also, it's pretty and I liked the black specks on the wings. David, will you lighten up?"
He blinked and looked at her. "Sure," he said. "I was just surprised. It's very pretty."
He kissed her, his tongue tracing her lower lip before delving inside, and she slipped her arms around his broad shoulders. Boy oh boy, it was too bad they were out on the lawn where God and everybody could see them, because she—
They looked up. Edmund had the glass door open and was scowling down at them from the balcony. Prince Alex, looking very surprised, was standing beside him.
"That's it," David whispered in her ear. "My erection has utterly vanished."
She giggled as Edmund said, "Really, Your Highness. My lady."
Prince Alex cleared his throat.
"The quest for nookie