“Call me that again,” she said, “and spend the rest of the spring learning how to grow back your lungs.”
“Then act like one, for pity’s sake,” he snapped. “One day, every man, woman, and child will depend upon you for their economy, the quality of their education, the health of the military budget. Lives will depend on the smallest decisions you make…or don’t make.”
“I’m not calming down, Mr. Dante.”
He ignored her. “You fulfilled a dying wish. Then you agreed to a proper DNA test, knowing the consequences—I explained them to you myself. For better or for worse, you’re here now. So be a Baranov, or not. But stop straddling the line.”
He took a breath. She waited. Then, “You done?”
“I think so.”
“Shit or get off the pot, huh?”
“You share your father’s gift for the perfect turn of phrase. Also, fire Jeffrey.”
“Fire him. Then he will no longer feel conflicted between duty and desire. And you’re a woman in your mid-thirties; you’re entitled to take any lover you wish.”
“I could never do that to him! His family’s been doing this work for generations. It’s all he knows.”
“Then you have a problem. I suspect you will turn your mind toward solving it.”
“Gee, thanks. Any other pearls of wisdom you want me to trip on?”
“None that come to mind,” he admitted. “Please excuse me. I don’t know what has gotten into me today.”
“Hey, that’s okay. Nobody’s perfect.”
“Least of all your father,” he said cryptically, then marched out.
“M y God, woman, I think I threw my back out last night.”
“Big Al, you don’t fool me. Under all that bullshit is a big old teddy bear.”
He was in his office chair and the Dragon was sitting on his lap, her feet dangling inches off the floor. “I think we took ten years off Edmund’s life this morning.”
“Well now, you were the one who wanted to try it with me on top.”
“I told you, by then you’d already thrown my back out. What choice did I have?”
“Excuses, excuses. I wonder where this scene fits into my memoirs.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Chapter fifteen,” she mused, “‘I Bone The King.’”
“You already fired me today.”
“Well, you’re fired again.”
She ran her fingers through his graying hair. “Is that a fact?”
There was a rap on his door and he heard Alexandria call, “Dad? Can I come in?”
He shoved the Dragon off his lap and she went willingly enough. Then he yelled, “You harpy, get the hell out of my office!”
“Don’t be like that, Big Al. All I want to know is how you met Princess Nicole’s mother. You gotta admit that’s historically significant.”
“No way! There’s historically significant and there’s none of your damned business! Guess which this is?”
Alexandria walked in. “You two aren’t fooling anyone. We all know you did the beast with two backs last night.”
The king and the Dragon gaped at the princess.
“Well, we do,” she said mildly, perching on the arm of one of the chairs. “Dad’s detail knew, then Edmund knew, then the whole detail knew, and Nicky’s been patching into their two-way since he learned how to hack, and he told all of us at breakfast, at which you were conspicuously absent, Dad, and I shudder to think why.”
“Remind me to strangle my youngest,” he said grimly.
“Hey, Dad. It’s only such a big deal because we’re happy for you. You’ve been alone too long.” Alexandria, a breathtaking brunette with the standard-issue Baranov blue eyes, smiled at Holly. “Granted, your choice was kind of a surprise, but still…”
“No goddamned privacy in my own house,” he grumped.
“Well, Dad. Did you think she kept coming back to write more deathless prose about signing the Conservation Act?”
“Why did everyone know why you kept coming back except me?”
“’Cuz you’re a dumbass, Big Al.”
“Do you want me to kick this broad out, Alex? Is this private business?”
“It is, but she’ll have to know eventually. Get ready to be a grandfather again.”
“Really?” He jumped up and swung his daughter around in a hug that left her breathless. Then, “Oh shit! Sorry. You’re not gonna puke, are you?”
“Eventually, I imagine so.”
“Congratulations, Alex,” Holly said, smiling broadly.
“Just when I thought I couldn’t take one more surprise, you lay this egg in my lap.”
“Almost literally,” Alex added, then giggled. “Another kid who’ll think nothing of their grandpa being on all the money.”
“How long have you—”
“Two days. I flew to the States to tell Sheldon, then hopped a transport back here. Shel will be here later today. Anyway, I’m due in November.”
“Why’d you tell that bum first?”
“Because he’s the father, Dad. I’m pretty sure. Kidding! Don’t throw anything at me. In fact, I’ll leave you two alone so you can have more old people sex.” She shivered all over. “You know what? Maybe I will throw up.” Then she left, closing the door firmly behind her.
“Congratulations, Grandpa,” Holly said.
“If you ever call me Grandpa again, I’ll fire you. Again.”
“I think I’ll chance it.” She plopped back into his lap. “So, what’s on today’s agenda?”
“Fire. Brimstone. Worlds colliding. I mean, I’m doing the Dragon. Isn’t that a sign of the Apocalypse?”
“Could be, Al,” she laughed, leaning down and planting a kiss on his mouth. “Could be.”
He started to kiss her back, then pulled away and looked her right in her big brown eyes. “I’m not getting married again, Holly. Never, ever again.”
“So you’ll never be queen.”
“Who’d want the job?”
“And here I thought you were after me for my money. Or you were looking for a crown.”
“Al, I’m after you, there’s no doubt about that. Stop shivering! But your money and your crown don’t have nothin’ to do with it.” She kissed him again. “You’ve got, ah, other qualities.”
“What I’ve been saying,” he said smugly.
N atalia was escorting Nicole to the nearest coffee shop—she was hungry to get out of the palace—when her two-way beeped. She spoke into it, then turned to Nicole.
“Rebel wants to meet with you. It sounds urgent.”
“Is he okay?”
“I don’t know, Highness, but if he had been hurt, I would know.”
“Okay. We’ll go out some other time. Where is he?”
“You’ll have to take me there; I have no idea where they are.”
“At once, Highness.”
“Thanks, Natalia. Bet you can’t wait until Jeff gets back.”
“I’m counting the seconds, Highness.”
“You’re a weird one, Natalia.”
“Thank you, Highness.”
And in twenty minutes, she was knocking on Nicky’s door.
“Nicky? It’s Nicole. Okay if I come in?”
At the muffled, “Yeah,” she turned the knob and entered.
The sixteen-year-old was clearly waiting for her; the television was off and he wasn’t playing video games. Just sitting on the couch and waiting, his hands dangling in his lap. He was growing so quickly his cuffs were an inch above his wrists.
“Dad’s having sex again.”
“You, um, didn’t have to tell me that. Ever.”
“I think—I think he’s ready to let my mother go.”
“Okay. Listen, Nicky, I know it’s awful and revolting to think about, but grown-ups have needs, even ancient doddering grown-ups like our father. It doesn’t mean he loved your mother any less.”
“I know. But I think he’s officially over her now. So I can finally talk to you.”
She sat down in the easy chair across from him. “Hon, I’m not up to a birds and bees chat. Last time was bad enough.”
He snorted. “I’m sixteen, not six. I know all about sex.”
“Really,” she said, amused.
“But I wanted to show you this.” He handed her a piece of paper, one that looked awfully familiar. She had seen one just like it not long ago, it was her—
“These are the results from my DNA test,” Nicky explained.
“You—oh. How did you—”
“You’ve heard the rumors. Everybody has. Dad just won’t hear them, and won’t let anyone talk to me about them, or him. He was the guardian of her memory, I guess. But she’s gone, and I’m too old to be taken care of anymore.”
“I hear you on that last one,” she said fervently, still trying to make sense of the numbers and words on the paper. “I’m thirty-five and I’m way way too old to be taken care of.”
“Great, Nicole, and this is about me, not you.”
“So sorry. Please continue.”
“Anyway, Dr. Hedman had to take Dad’s blood. And your blood. And then I cornered him and ordered him to take my blood and run the same test. See, always before, Dad wouldn’t allow the test. He sure wouldn’t cough up any of his blood for one.”
“So you bullied Dr. Hedman—”
“I didn’t bully,” he corrected her sharply, sitting up straighter and looking like the prince he was. “I commanded. And he did as I asked. That piece of paper says I am not a blood relation to the king. None.” He paused, obviously struggling to keep his composure. “My mother was a queen. And she was a liar and a betrayer.”