"One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three— focus, ladies—one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three—"
It was, Christina mused, a little like gym class in hell. Certainly the ballroom was big enough, and although she didn't know the name of the waltz that was playing, the one-two-three beat was droning right through her head. Well, she would dare much for David. Waltzes and more!
"My lady? Ah! Here you are."Jenny hurried into the ballroom. The place was as big as a high school gym, and their voices echoed off the walls. Christina had stopped counting after half a dozen chandeliers.
As usual, Jenny was impeccably groomed and dressed in her Tuesday suit: the gray pinstripe with the white blouse, nude-colored pantyhose, black pumps. "Are you ready?"
"No. Go away. I'm busy."
"My lady, be reasonable. Just this one time."
"Come on, quit bugging me. There's plenty of time."
"I beg to differ," Princess Alexandria said. "You're getting married a week from tomorrow. And don't hold me so tightly, or I'll get my pepper spray."
"You make it sound so damn dire. It's just shoe shopping. Shit, I can do it online in about ten seconds."
"But you haven't. And now we will take care of it ourselves. Be reasonable, my lady—it's one of my duties as a bridesmaid."
"And mine, too," Alexandria said cheerfully. "Kathryn's blowing us off, though—she's got riding lessons this afternoon."
"What's she riding? A Bengal tiger? Is he going to mind when she starts chucking rocks at his head?"
"An Arabian, and very funny. She's only throwing things at you right now."
"Oh, very comforting."
"One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three—"
Princess Kathryn's reputation preceded her. She was very much King Alexander's daughter. Except, of course, she hardly ever said a word, and tended to express herself by breaking things or throwing food. Chris felt sorry for her, a little ... trapped in the middle of a rambunctious, larger-than-life family, with a to-die-for gorgeous older sister to boot... it was no wonder she expressed herself through mild violence.
But then, Christina thought, it was obvious they were all the king's kids, one way or the other.
"She trusts our selection," Jenny was blathering. "But we need to do it now, this morning."
"Because you're doing the tasting menu this afternoon," Princess Alex pointed out. "And tomorrow's booked with Dr. Pohl and the minister. And the day after, you and David are doing a coronation rehearsal."
"Why?" she whined.
"Because you don't want to look like a big dumb-ass up there when they plop the crown on your head, do you?"
"Oh, God help me," she muttered. She stopped waltzing. Alex immediately sat down on the highly polished floor, took off her tennis shoes, and rubbed her feet. She was wearing white socks, and Christina noted there wasn't a trace of blood anywhere.
"You're interrupting waltzing lessons to go buy footgear?"
"Yes, "Jenny and Edmund said firmly.
Great. Sounded like it was going to be a real yawn-o-rama. "Fine, let's get it over with."
"That's the spirit!" Alex cried. She slipped her shoes back on and jumped to her feet. "With a positive attitude like that, you can't go wrong."
"Listen, how come there's a coronation? Aren't I automatically a princess when I marry your big brother?"
"Yup. By law, anyway. But the people like to see a ceremony, something concrete. And Dad always says, when at all possible, give the people what they want."
"Your dad says that?"
Alex ignored the sarcastic question. "But like I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted by a commoner, by law, the second you say 'I do', you're the crown princess of Alaska."
"Relax. It'll be cake."
"Sure it will."
"You'll be a splendid princess," Jenny assured her. "Otherwise, His Highness would have—um— I'll go get the car."
"Otherwise His Highness would have tossed me out on my ass by now, huh?" Christina asked Alex, who nodded without a trace of a smile.
"Should we bring your bodyguards, or mine?"
"Mine," Chris said firmly. "Yours all look like they've been embalmed."
"They do not! They just take their jobs very seriously."
"Sure. So they got embalmed."
"I have the swatches right here," Jenny said, patting her tote bag, which bulged in all directions rather alarmingly.
"What the hell is a swatch?"
"We'll tell you," Alex said, slipping her arm through Christina's, "on the way."
Christina staggered into her room three hours later, utterly exhausted. Argh! A whole morning she would never, ever get back. Wasted on shopping. Shopping for shoes. Why not just hit her over the head until she lost consciousness? That would have been quicker. And kinder!
She opened her top drawer, intent on showering and changing to get the smell of Mall off her, and nearly shrieked. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, leapt backward, and just managed to catch Prince Nicholas by the back of his hooded sweatshirt as he sprinted for the door.
She yanked. Nicky made a sound—Yark!—and she shook him like a maraca.
"Dammit, you little perv! You keep out of my drawers, understand? Stop. Rearranging. My. Clothes." Each word was punctuated by a shake.
"Awwww, Chris, come on! You can't keep your cottons with your silks. It's unnatural—yark!"
"I give a shit! And it's unnatural that a twelve-year-old boy should care about this stuff. I mean it, Nicky. At first I thought this strange obsession you had with my clothing was cute, but now I'm getting a first-class case of the creeps. How'd you like to have to go talk to Dr. Pohl every week?"
"I wouldn't," he admitted. "She looks like a nice grandma, but I think she's scary."
"Agreed. So cut. It. Out."
"You should be nicer to me," he burst out, his small, sneakered feet swinging a foot in the air. "My mom's dead."
"Join the club, pal," she said grimly. "No special treatment from me."
He stopped kicking his feet. "I forgot about your mama, Chris," he said, chastised. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right. But remember what I said. One more time, and I rat you out to the king and he makes you go talk to a shrink instead of going out fishing with the guys."
"Okay. Um . .. Chris .. . can I ask you something about your family?"
She set him down, but kept a grip on his sweatshirt hood, just in case. "Sure."
"Do you look like your mom or your dad?"
She blinked. "Neither. My mom was short and had long, straight dark hair, and brown eyes. My dad was a redhead with green eyes."
"You have green eyes. Except sometimes they're blue."
"Anyway, I look like my grandpa."
"Oh. Because I don't look like my fa—I mean, some people say I look like my mom's side of the family," he finished lamely.
"Well, 'some people' are idiots, Nicky. Do you know what a recessive gene is? No? Okay, it's why I look like my grandpa instead of my dad. And it's why you look like your grandma—or is it your great-grandma? I can never remember . . . anyway, it's why you look like her instead of your dad."
"Because .. . because I don't look anything like my brothers or sisters. They're all dark and I'm not."
She blinked down at him. It was obvious this was a big deal to him, but if she made it a big deal, that would be a mistake. So she let out an exasperated sigh and said, "Nicky, it's like I said. It's recessive genes. It doesn't mean anything. Besides, you think your dad cares if you're a blonde or a brunette? Got news, punk—he doesn't. Not even a little bit. And I know plenty of people who would kill for your hair. Natural blond curls ... it makes me mad just to look at you."
"Okay." He grinned. "You shouldn't call me a punk."
"I'll call you whatever the hell I want, you little—"
"Want me to shoot him?"
They both looked up. Kurt was leaning in the doorway, grinning.
"Can I see your gun?" Nicky asked, instantly distracted.
"Sure." Kurt pulled it from his shoulder holster, checked the safety, ejected the slide, ejected the bullet from the chamber, then handed the empty gun to the prince and bent to pick up the round on the carpet. "That's a Beretta, nine millimeter."
"I know. It's nice."
"You always said shoulder holsters were for TV," Chris commented. "Said it was impossible to get a quick draw from them."
"Well." Kurt shrugged. "I practiced. And that's not a problem anymore. D'you know the king gave that gun to me? He had that tall, skinny, scary guy— "
"Edmund," Nicky and Chris said in unison.
"—right, him. He had that guy check on what I had back in L.A., and got me two new ones. One to carry, and a spare."
"Daddy said since we wrecked your vacation, you should get something nice out of it," Nicky volunteered. He handed the gun back to Kurt, butt-first. "It's nice, but I like the thirty-eights better."
Chris covered her eyes. "Oh, don't tell me."
"It's okay," Nicky said. "I'm only allowed to practice on the range, with my gun instructor."
"I feel so much better. I guess it's not in the king to let one of his kids take up a normal habit, like gardening."
Nicky snorted. "I'm going now."
"Well, 'bye. 'Bye, Kurt."