"Whatever you say, sugar."
"Apparently the fact that David keeps giving me rings that suck means I secretly don't want to be married."
"Oh. Well, uh—"
"Don't you start," she warned, shrugging into her coat. They stepped into the warm (for Alaska) spring day. "Listen, do you not actually have a job anymore? Because you've been here almost two weeks. Not that I don't love it, but I don't want you to get in trouble."
"I toldja. My boss thinks this is great P.R., so I'm here as long as the king wants me to play bodyguard. Besides," he added, slinging an arm com-panionably around her shoulders, "I'da stayed anyway. I think you might be in over your head."
"Tell me. It's—"
"Don," she said patiently, "I've asked you not to do that."
"Back off with the camera," Kurt ordered, his left hand disappearing into his jacket as, with his right hand, he blocked the lens. "Right now."
"Whoa," she said, tugging on his arm until it came down. "Don't go all Sean Penn on me. This is Don Cook—he's a local news guy. And, inconceivably, taking pictures of me helps him feed his family."
"Everybody's gotta make a living," Don said, firing off another picture. "I couldn't help overhear-ing-"
"Our completely private conversation."
"Does this mean the wedding's off?"
"No," she said irritably. "It means I haven't found a ring I like yet. Write this down in your lit-de book, Don-o—my promise to marry made me engaged, not a rock weighing down my finger."
"So it's still on?"
"Three weeks to go," she said, and managed to conceal the shudder. Three weeks .. . and she still didn't know the prince much better than the day she'd met him. Trouble was, she had a sneaking suspicion that was her fault more than his. "And FYI, your invitation really did get lost in the mail."
Don laughed. "Sure. Later, Lady Christina."
"See you around, Don."
Kurt was shaking his head as they walked toward the car. "Lady... man, I still can't get used to that."
"Wait 'til they start with the princess stuff."
"You know, Chris, it's not too late. Say the word, and we're on a plane to L.A."
"Thanks, Kurt, I appreciate that, but it was my decision and I made it. And I'm sticking with it."
"It's just.. . sometimes you don't seem like an excited bride-to-be."
"Don't let my moody, depressive, bitchy exterior fool you. Inside, I'm crying with happiness."
"Things will settle down," she said doubtfully, "after the wedding."
"Well. The offer still stands, you know."
"Is this 'get Chris off the hook' day? Did I miss a memo?"
"I figure the doctor and me are just worried about you, is all."
She studied him, her old friend, former lover, current cop and bodyguard. There had been a time when she would have stripped him of his sidearm and cheerfully shot him in the kneecap. Kurt was a California surfer-boy-turned-man to the nth degree; as far as she knew, he really was God's gift to women. Certainly he was one of the best-looking men she'd ever run across in her many travels.
And who knows what could have been, if he'd been able to keep his hands to himself? Or at least, only on her?
But she liked this better. It was so nice to have a friend nearby, one who knew her before she was (blare of trumpets, please) the Lady Christina. Although she knew intellectually that Kurt was yummier than a triple hot fudge sundae, she no longer felt it.
Instead, whenever she thought yummy thoughts, images of David popped up in her head. It was annoying and distracting, especially since she had no idea how he truly felt about her, and was too embarrassed to ask.
Dr. Pohl probably would have said it wasn't embarrassment, it was a poor sense of her own worth, and a fear of hearing an honest answer.
But what did a board-certified shrink with four degrees know? So the woman made a lucky guess once in a while. Now she was Christina's personal oracle? Uh-uh.
"I just want you to know," Kurt was saying, "that offer to take a plane to L.A. still stands, anytime. Day or night. You just say the word, we're out of here."
"Thanks." She squeezed his arm, then let go—it was his gun arm. "You're the best."
"Yup. Keep it in mind," he added with a grin.
Kurt walked her back to her room, dropped a brotherly kiss to her forehead, and disappeared for parts unknown after admonishing her to beep him when she wanted to go somewhere again. But the only place Chris wanted to go was bed ... she had a splitting headache and needed a nap. Possibly two. She hadn't... well, she hadn't been sleeping well lately.
There was a black velvet ring box in the middle of her (made) bed.
"Dammit," she muttered. A) she'd been after the chambermaids to leave her room alone, and B) another ring.
She sighed and picked the box up. She ran through her litany of excuses: it's not me, it feels funny on my hand, I don't like the setting, I don't like the band, it's too expensive, it's—
She'd popped the lid open and stared hungrily at the ring. It was—it was just fine. In fact, it was beautiful. A largish, light blue stone, set in a simple silver setting. After months of turning down rings, she knew good cut and clarity when she saw it The blue stone—topaz? aquamarine?—was about two carats. A little larger than she would have liked, but not embarrassingly so.
She slid it on her finger. It fit perfectly. The stone caught the natural light in her room and seemed to wink at her.
Oh, it was ... it was just...
Two hours later, she sagged to a stop outside Al's office, then rapped on the door. For a wonder, he was in—usually he had snuck off to fish by this time of the day.
"What's up?" he asked, glumly signing paper after paper.
"You know what you need? You need a computer like on Star Trek. You know how the captain says, 'Computer, locate Commander Riker,' and the computer says, 'Commander Riker is boinking Troi in the holodeck,' or whatever? That's what this palace needs."
"Who can't you find?"
"Who d'you think? Your son! I've looked everywhere and I'm fucking exhausted!"
"Not just run-of-the-mill exhausted?" the king asked, grinning a little. "Fucking exhausted?"
"I'm going to ignore that with the dignity it doesn't deserve. He's not in the penguin room, he's not in the gallery, the cooks told me he ate hours ago but he hasn't left the grounds, Edmund doesn't have a clue, Jenny just used the opportunity to bug me about shoe shopping, and Kurt doesn't know."
"He and his brothers and sisters are at the family plot," Al said. He capped his pen and ignored the overflowing in-bin. "Today is the anniversary of their mother's death."
"Oh." Shit. "Uh . . ." Shit. "Well. .."
"It's all right. We should have told you. But you'd left to see Dr. Pohl and frankly, we didn't think hanging out at the family crypt was going to be your idea of a good time, so they went without you."
"Well. . . no . . . but..." Incredibly, stupidly, she was hurt that the prince hadn't asked her to come. She was going to be his wife. This was her dead future mother-in-law, after all. And he'd—they'd— left her. Gone off and left her. "Well. I'm sorry to barge in and all. . ."
"No prob, Chris. You're welcome in here anytime."
"Is there—how come you aren't there now?"
"I went this morning," the king said quietly.
"Oh." She could feel her face getting red; this was turning into one of the most painfully embarrassing scenes she'd ever been in the middle of. And she'd been in the middle of plenty. "Okay. Well.. . thanks for letting me know. Sorry to interrupt your work. What are you doing, anyway?"
"Signing bills into laws. You know, regular paperwork."
"Sure. Regular paperwork. Okay. Well, see ya later."
"Stay out of trouble," he said absently, already back at work.
"Too late," she muttered, closing the door behind her. Where she promptly ran into Edmund. "Geeyah! Must you sneak up on me like a goddamned ghoul all the time?"
"Yes, my lady. A moment of your time?"
"Why didn't you tell me the prince was hanging out by his mom's grave, fool?"
Edmund blinked in surprise. "I didn't think he still was." He glanced at his watch. "Hmm. Well, I'm sure he'll be back soon."
"Well, good. I need to talk to him. Check this out!" She proudly flashed her ring. "Isn't it great?"
"Praise the Lord—the lady has made a selection."
"I've told you a zillion times, stop talking about me in the third person. What do you want, anyway?"
"I'd like you to come along with me and approve your apartments."
"My what?" She fell into step beside him, which wasn't easy because he had a stride like an ostrich.
"Where you and His Highness will live after the wedding."
"Oh. We're living here? Is that what David wants?"
"I would imagine so, my lady, as he's the one who gave the orders for these apartments to be finished well before your wedding day."
"Thanks for asking, Dave," she mumbled.
"Beg pardon, my lady?"
"Nothing. So, we're gonna live here? All the time? Not that I mind, because this is a really nice place, and it's plenty big enough for all of us, but..."
"The prince also has homes in Boston, London, Prince Edward Island, and Rome."
"Coastal towns," she said.
"Well. His Highness is a marine biologist."