Her favorite sandwich: rare roast beef, mustard, tomatoes, on a sourdough roll.
She wondered how the palace staff ferreted stuff like that out.
Resolved to make a fresh start and hash this thing out with Jeffrey, her plan had been foiled by sleeping late. And now—
“Off duty for the rest of the week, Your Highness.”
She squinted at Natalia, who looked as far from a bodyguard as anyone she’d ever seen: big dark pansy eyes, pale skin, long blond hair in a Valkyrie braid that hung over her left shoulder. Black suit. Armed to the teeth. Sensible flats.
“Did I get him in trouble?”
“Would you tell me if I did?”
Great. They’d assigned her a cyborg.
She sighed. “Well, what’s the plan for today, Natalia?”
“You’ll be presenting awards to the GSA—”
“Girl Scouts of Alaska. Then lunch. Then—”
“Then nothing. I’m off duty then, too.”
Natalia didn’t blink. Perhaps she hadn’t been programmed to. “Yes, Princess.”
“And one more thing.”
A fter dealing with several giggling preadolescents, all who wanted to know what it was like to be “a real live princess, like Sleeping Beauty!” she made her escape and tracked down the youngest prince. She found him exactly where Natalia had told her he’d be, which was a good trick.
Because when it was just family, the detail left them pretty much alone. They only stuck close at official luncheons and the like. And they were positively leechlike when the royals left the palace grounds. And yet, they always knew where each royal could be found, day or night.
Anyway, Nicky was watching the new Harry Potter movie, which she knew for a fact wouldn’t be out in theaters for another six weeks, and munching popcorn in the small theater.
Munching alongside him was Princess Christina.
He turned and smiled when he saw her. “Hi, Nicole. Lights!”
The gloomy theater instantly brightened, and the movie shut off.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt—”
“He’s seen it three times already.” Christina was studying her with a cool, calculating gaze. “Did you come to rumble? Get payback for that bump on the noggin?”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“To meet your niece?”
“Uh, sorry about that. Sure, but maybe later? I mean, doesn’t she have a schedule, too?”
“I’m pretty sure Al is sneaking her Ding-Dongs and ruining her supper,” Christina said dolefully. “Why don’t you have supper with us? David and me and her, I mean, in our suite? I’ll cook.”
Oh, right. She had read that Christina Baranov, née Krabbe, had been a cruise line chef before meeting the king, and then David. “Sure, sounds good.”
“Are you allergic to anything?”
Amused, Nicole asked, “You don’t have paperwork on that?”
“Sure. But who can find it in that haystack?”
“No, no allergies. But I hate green beans.”
“Three helpings of haricots vertes coming up.” Christina tossed another handful of popcorn in her mouth. “So what’s on your mind?”
“Actually, Christina, I’m here for him.”
“You are? I mean, of course you are.” Christina looked surprised. Nicky looked smug. “Listen, I’m sorry about the other day. Even though you started it.”
“You really suck at apologies,” Nicky told his sister-in-law.
“I’m just saying—no hard feelings, okay?”
“I,” Nicole replied, “have no other kind of feelings, on the off chance you hadn’t noticed. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to Nicky alone.”
“What are you going to do to him?” Christina asked suspiciously, not budging from her seat.
“I’m going to probe his diabolical mind.”
“I am being serious.”
Christina turned to the only other blonde in the family. “Do you want me to stay?”
“She’s probably got some piano wire on her somewhere. Possibly a crossbow.”
“You think I’m in danger because she tried to punch you? You’re in danger because she tried to punch you. Why don’t you go take care of David’s penguins or something?”
“You mean it’s true?” Nicole said. “There really are penguins living inside the palace? I thought that was an urban legend.”
“Don’t we all wish.” The tall blonde shuddered but got to her feet. “Why don’t I go take care of the smelly things? Because I have a life? I’m gonna go make pea soup from scratch.”
“Pea soup,” Nicky said, shivering. “Why not just vomit into a bowl and call it good?”
“God, you’re disgusting.” Christina moved up the aisle. “Later, Nicole.”
“Even ‘maybe’ sounds ominous coming from you.” But Christina was talking to herself; Nicole had focused her attention on Nicky.
She sat beside him and said, “If I wanted to find out where a staff member lived while at the same time not making a big deal of it, how would I—”
He handed her a computer printout. It had one name on it, and one address.
She stared at him. “What are you, a witch? How’d you know what I wanted? How’d you know I’d show up here looking for it?”
“Well, everybody knows Jeffrey was sort of forced into a vacation.”
“Forced?” she said sharply. Here she’d been thinking he had gotten himself transferred to another detail, and who could blame him?
“Well, yeah. He’s really overdue. It’s stressful, watching out for us.”
“I can imagine.”
“No, Nicole, you can’t. Our detail is bored 99.9 percent of the time, and the other tenth of a percent, people are shooting at them—or us—or trying to blow us up.”
“I guess I didn’t think about it like that.” Mostly, she mused, she thought of the detail as grossly invading her privacy as much as they could.
“And he was on Dad’s detail for years. That’s probably the most stressful detail of all.”
“I can imagine.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Okay, okay, we’ve established I’m the detail dumbass. But you still haven’t explained how you can see into the future. Is that your royal superpower?”
“I just figured you’d want to check up on him. Whenever one of our detail is sick or whatever, we usually stop by their place at least once. They’re trained to take a bullet or a knife; the least we can do is visit them when they’re sick or whatever.”
“Okay.” Sick or whatever had nothing to do with nothing, but she had no plans to enlighten the Prince of Darkness. “I’m with you so far.”
“And I figured you wouldn’t know who to ask—Edmund, by the way, when in doubt, always ask Edmund—so I pulled Jeffrey’s address out of one of our databases, printed it, and stuck it in my pocket. I figured I’d have to find you, but you tracked me down.”
She stared at him. “You’re kind of terrifying, you know?”
He arched blond brows at her. “Sure.”
“Didn’t you blow up the bathrooms at—”
“Nicole!” He grinned. “Don’t tell me you believe everything you read.”
“Just give me a chance to kill myself if I ever get on your bad side.”
“Please. I’m glad you’re here. Uh.” He colored. “I mean, I’m sorry about your mom and all, but I’m really glad you’re here. It’s been so boring lately.”
“Anything to brighten your weird little life.” She pocketed the printout. “Thanks for this.”
“Please. Next time give me something hard.”
“I’ll try to stump you.”
J effrey sat in his living room, drinking Scotch.
This was a horrible idea, for several reasons.
One: He didn’t drink.
Two: If he did drink, it wouldn’t be Scotch, which tasted like rubbing alcohol to him, no matter how good or how old. And this had been a Christmas gift from the king; he knew it went for at least three hundred bucks. Still, it tasted like a doctor’s office.
Three: At the rate he was going, he was looking at a real bitch kitty of a hangover tomorrow.
And four: It wasn’t helping. He was still ashamed, and horny, and mad.
He drained the glass.
At least Nicole was in good hands. Natalia may have been the youngest agent on the detail, but what she lacked in experience she made up for in cold-blooded efficiency. And she had been an Olympian-level sharpshooter. Quite a catch for the detail and an impeccable military background, too.
But, oh God, he wished he was the one watching out for Nicole. Who knew what mischief that mouthy, gorgeous, irritating princess would get up to? For that matter, who knew what—
There was a tap on the door.
Jeffrey cursed. That would be a palace rep, asking him to return to duty for whatever reason. Except he couldn’t, because he’d been drinking.
He got to his feet and walked to the door, stooping to look through the peephole.
“Oh my God!” He yanked the door open. “Tell me Natalia knows where you are.”
Nicole brushed past him. “Natalia of the Borg thinks I’m asleep in my bed. Jeez, nice fumes, did you fall into a brewery on your way home?”