“Why, the very same thing!”
He threw his head back and laughed. She loved his laugh. Finally, he was able to choke it off and said, “It’ll never work, Holly.”
“Don’t know ’til you try, ain’t that so?”
“But, Holly, I hate you with every molecule in my body.”
“That’s why there’s all them sparks between us.”
“Sparks? That’s one word for it. Germs is what I was thinking.”
“Big Al, you know you can’t hold me off forever. A man like you has needs.”
“That’s what I always say! But the kids always tell me to shush up.”
“They don’t see you like I do, Big Al. And thank goodness.”
He rested a finger on her nose. He leaned in and whispered, “Did you know your accent gets thicker when you’re nervous?”
“Nuh-uh, does not. I’m from Texas; nothin’ has scared us since the Alamo.”
“Is that right?”
“Bet your royal ass.”
“Holly, the queen and I—our relationship was very complicated. And I owe the mother of my children some—”
“The queen is dead,” Holly said. “Long live me. Now rack ’em up.”
E dmund Dante smoothed his perfectly smooth suit jacket, patted his unmussed hair, flicked imaginary lint off his shoulder, then left his rooms and strolled toward the west kitchens.
He courteously greeted every staff member by name and received battalions of “Good morning, Mr. Dante,” and “Hi, Edmund,” and “Good morning, sir,” greetings as he went. He stopped one of the chambermaids, fresh from maternity leave, and asked after the baby. He stopped one of Prince Alexander’s footmen and asked how his ailing mother was doing.
He knew everyone. He knew everything. The smallest detail did not escape him. All was right with the world.
After observing the kitchen staff for a minute, it was obvious there had been no last-minute disasters and breakfast would be served on time, which today meant 8:00 A.M. That gave him an hour and a half to read everyone’s schedules, wake the king, and be debriefed by the detail.
Yes, it would be close.
He turned to leave, only to hear, “Edmund!”
He turned back, and deftly caught the orange one of the cooks had tossed him. “Put it in your pocket for luck,” she said, smiling. “Knowing you, it’s all you’ll eat today.”
“Thank you, Carrie. And good morning.”
He found his way to the king’s chambers, picking up the schedules from his office on the way. Nothing out of the ordinary here, either, and that was very well. In fact, a refreshing change—no outside visitors, except for Miss Holly Call-Me-Dragon. Ah, poor King Alexander. She was his cross to bear.
“Good morning, Mr. Dante.”
“Good morning, Mr. Reynolds. All well, I trust.”
“A quiet night,” Reynolds replied. He looked exceptionally cheerful for a normally stone-faced detail man. “For the most part.”
“Oh? Glad to hear it.”
“Yes, sir. Quiet. For the most part.”
“Mr. Reynolds, are you quite all right?”
“Quite, Mr. Dante.” Reynolds fished out his two-way. “Bookman to see Warrior.”
“May I have your permission to enter, Mr. Reynolds?” Not that he needed it. There wasn’t a single room in the palace off limits to him; he had played here as a child and they all knew it. Still, the courtesies must be observed. That was no surprise, either.
Edmund sighed with satisfaction. No surprises. A place for everything and everything in its place. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. The schedules were constantly updated but always correct.
He rapped twice and opened the door.
And did something he had never done in the service of his king: He shouted, “Oh my God, what are you two doing?”
N atalia was new to the detail and wasn’t sure she liked it. Granted, it was the highest honor offered by the Alaskan military. And granted, she had worked hard to get here.
But her charge, Princess Nicole, was sneaking out at night. The king had, inexplicably, begun sleeping with the Dragon. Jeffrey, the detail’s rock, was on vacation.
And the woman in charge of Christina’s detail confided that she suspected the Crown Princess was pregnant. Like any of them wanted to go on that wild ride again. She hadn’t been there at the time, but she’d heard all the rumors.
The detail was famous for it; one man’s gossip was another woman’s way to better protect her charge.
Now here came Mr. Dante, looking—say it isn’t so—rattled.
“The king—the king—”
“Has there been a schedule update, sir?” she asked, playing dumb.
“Damn right there has!” the man nearly screamed, then got hold of himself. “Forgive me. I—I haven’t had breakfast yet. My blood sugar is low.”
“You might try eating that orange in your pocket,” she said helpfully.
“Yes, I might. Is the princess in?”
And that was the sticky spot. Because she had no idea whether Nicole was in there or not. She hadn’t heard her leave. But she never did. And Nicole hadn’t come past her to get back in. It was shameful to be ready to open a door and have no idea whether her charge was in there or not.
The sweaty, stressed Edmund started to snap a response, then took a deep breath. “Natalia, please don’t worry. The princess can take care of herself, as she has demonstrated again and again. And she’s sneaking off to visit Jeff. So even when you don’t know where she is, she’s in good hands.”
Natalia felt her mouth pop open in surprise and almost broke Rule Number One with a whispered, “How…” Because nobody ever asked how Mr. Dante knew everything. He just did.
And he was kind enough to pretend he hadn’t noticed her blunder.
So she didn’t announce him or anything when he tapped on Princess Nicole’s door and at the clear, “It’s open!” entered.
She spoke into her two-way. “Bookman to see Hunter.”
Then she leaned against the wall, wondering what else was in store for the detail in the weeks to come. God knew, it had been a madhouse since the king got the famous letter.
She wondered what was in store for them all next, and found she couldn’t wait to see.
That was the trick, the others had told her. That was how they got you. They were a big, merry bunch of troublemakers, and they pulled everyone into their madness.
Natalia checked to make sure the corridor was empty, then smiled, something that would have shocked the already shell-shocked palace inhabitants.
N icole was surprised to see a clearly rattled Mr. Dante walk into her room. At least she’d been in her room.
She’d gotten smart after her first visit to Jeff and went to the most diabolical source she knew.
Somehow, within twenty minutes, Nicky had procured a three-story rope ladder that would hold up to 320 pounds. So she no longer had to walk past Natalia when she returned; she just scurried back up the black ladder, which was downright invisible at night.
She was still wearing last night’s outfit. Hopefully, Mr. Dante wouldn’t notice.
Oh, who was she kidding? He noticed everything.
“Hi, Mr. Dante.”
“You want something? Natalia rustles up a mean cup of coffee, no matter how many times I tell her to quit it.”
She gestured for him to have a seat, but he ignored her. She couldn’t help but be curious; what was he doing here? And what was wrong? “What’s up?”
“I—ah—that is—the king—I have—I have been—”
“Whoa! You’d better sit down. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Infinitely worse,” he said darkly. “And I pray I never see such a sight again. Princess, I have been remiss.”
She was having a hard time following the conversation. Well, it was early. And Edmund was clearly in the middle of a cerebral hemorrhage. “You’ve what now?”
“I neglected to explain the nature of your security detail.”
“Do you think you’re the only one who needed to leave the palace for an assignation?”
She stared at him. “Uh…”
“For one thing, do you think you would be here if royals couldn’t sneak away for a little fun now and again?”
“That, um, hadn’t occurred to—”
Wonder of wonders, he actually interrupted her. “Let your detail help you. If you wish to visit Jeffrey, Natalia will take you. And she would never tell the king. Just as the king would never—never mind.”
There was no point in playing dumb, so she didn’t bother. “But Jeffrey is my detail.”
“Yes, that poses a problem, doesn’t it?”
Suddenly she felt the urge to unburden herself. To tell him everything. She spoke to him like she would her mother. “He says while I’m in his apartment I’m just Nicole. But what about when he comes back from vacation? He won’t be with me while he’s on duty…and the detail considers themselves on duty twenty-four/seven.”
“You mustn’t begrudge them their devotion.”
“Who’s begrudging? It just makes my life more difficult, that’s all.”
“As opposed to what you’re doing to Natalia,” he said dryly.
“Hey! I didn’t ask for any of this, and you know it.”
“You didn’t ask. You didn’t want. You weren’t ready. Nicole Krenski, are you a Princess of Alaska or are you a coward?”