“Iatrophobia,” she corrected him. “And no.”
“Uh-huh. You know a word I’ve never heard before—and I’m a PhD,” he added modestly. “But noooo, you’re not scared.”
“Of course I’m scared. Do you have any idea how weird you all are? Your brother Nicholas was in all the papers—again—for pulling that prank that cost Prince Henry a broken ankle!”
David winced. “Don’t remind me. Dad took a ration of shit from the Queen of England for that one. Don’t sweat it, though. Nicky’s safely confined to the palace until his twenty-fifth birthday.”
“What a relief for the planet. And the Windsors.”
“Oh, like Henry wasn’t in on the whole—”
“Look, my mom asked me to do something. I did it. It’s done. We’re. All. Done. Now, buh-bye.”
“But you’re supposed to take me salmon fishing,” the prince whined.
“According to some, I’m supposed to do a lot of things.”
Her boss was banging his blond head on his blond-wood desk. “Nicole, you’re killing me. Please stop. I’m begging. I’m groveling. I’m—”
“No worries, Mr. Freeborg. I promise your business won’t be penalized as a result of anything my sister says.”
The blond head jerked up. Nicole closed her eyes. “Your what?”
“Well.” Nicole opened her eyes in time to see the Crown Prince of Alaska wink at her. “Half sister.”
D avid Baranov, Crown Prince of Alaska, plopped down in the chair in front of the king’s desk. Relieved to have a break from reading tedious legislation, Al all but shoved the paperwork away from him. “Come in! Sit down! Spend some time with your old man.”
“Dad, you’ve got to finish that stuff up sooner or later.”
“Shut up, you.”
“It’s a wonder anything gets done. If you’re not stalling, you’re sneaking out to go fishing.”
“Put your mouth in Park, boy.”
His son mimed locking his lips shut, then tossed an imaginary key over his shoulder.
David shook his head. “No go, Dad. And for the record, no one has ever spoken to me like that in my life. Except for you. And…well. Is it just me, or does she remind me of Christina?”
“She reminds me of every one of you brats,” the king growled.
“Yeah, the resemblance was hard to miss. And not just on the physical side.” David paused. “Have you, ah, told the other sibs about this yet?”
“Oh.” Pause. Al fought the urge to roll his eyes. Here comes the moral assurance that I haven’t gone down in his estimation. “Listen, Dad. I had all last night and all day today to think about it. And I don’t—I mean, I know you and Mom weren’t exactly thrilled with each other a hundred percent of the time, and I’m sure Nicole’s mother was what you needed at just the right time. I just, you know. Understand.”
“What a relief. I love you, boy, but I require neither your permission nor your assurance.”
“Sieg heil, Your Majesty.”
His eldest son stretched out long legs and yawned. He had the distinct air of fish guts about him and was dressed casually. Al was always startled to see how much his boy looked exactly like a younger version of him. It was like looking into a sneaky mirror.
Hell, it didn’t seem so long since he’d been David’s age. Objectively, it had been decades. Subjectively, it felt like maybe five years. Hell, he was a father by the time he was David’s age.
Of course, David was a father now, too. The king smiled, thinking of his granddaughter, Dara.
“Oh, and she’s only the best angler I’ve ever seen,” his son teased, bringing Al back to the conversation.
“Second best,” the king grumped. “And don’t you forget it, boy. You’re not too big to spank.”
“Actually, I really sort of am. Think of how Dara would be scarred to see her grandfather assaulting her father! She could be the Queen of Alaska someday, and yet psychologically crippled.”
“Meh.” So, he mused. David had obviously gone fishing. Nicole had agreed to take him out, as she’d taken Jeffrey out. Maybe there was a way to crack this egg yet. “You get anything else out of her?”
“Yeah, she knows the technical term for an uncontrollable fear of doctors.”
“Who doesn’t?” he bluffed.
“Iatrophobia,” his son kindly supplied.
“If that kid’s scared of anything, I’ll eat sushi.”
“Please, Dad,” his son mock-begged. “Don’t befoul your gourmet palate. Hamburgers will never taste the same.”
“I got to take shit from every one of my kids. Every one.”
“It’s your curse,” his son agreed happily.
“Iatrophobia,” Al mused.
“I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, I think it was a feint.”
“She’s trying to throw us off the trail. Which is exceedingly weird. She writes us about her, when she could have clammed up, and then refuses to cooperate.”
“You could refuse my dying wish so easily?”
His son colored, but doggedly continued. “Who wouldn’t want to be one of us? She passes the DNA, she’s got a claim to one of the biggest fortunes on the planet. She’ll never have to worry about money again, nor any of her kids, or grandkids. Plus, we have a pretty good time around here.” David spread his palms. “What’s not to love?”
Al smiled at his son. David was young. And he thought his family’s way was the only way. Although Al strongly suspected his son was quite a bit more intelligent than he was, he lacked experience. Al had been walking around on the planet long enough to know just how much people feared change.
David, born and reared a prince, could not conceive of any other lifestyle, nor understand why a stranger would turn it down.
“It was her and her mama for her whole life,” Al said. “And now she’s all alone. Maybe she likes her solitude.” Except scratch the maybe.
There was a discreet rap on the door. “C’mon in, Edmund!” they called in unison.
“Majesty. Highness.” Edmund fairly staggered under the load of paperwork. Al made a conscious effort not to cringe. “May I presume to ask how it went, Your Highness?”
“Do you see her anywhere, Edmund?”
“Watch the tone, boy,” the king said absently, drumming his fingers on the desk. One thing he had insisted on before any of his children could walk: hired help were also subjects, and subjects deserved respect. Always. Except, of course, for one. And he’d straightened her out, by God. Sent her packing with a flea in her ear. Again.
“Sorry, Edmund,” David was saying. “My morning was equal parts aggravating and amusing. Didn’t mean to mouth off.”
“I know not to what you refer, Highness. Will you permit me a suggestion?”
“Don’t you hate when he pretends he doesn’t control our every move?”
“With all my black heart,” Al replied. “Spill, Edmund.”
“I think the time for gentler tactics have passed.”
“You don’t mean?” the prince gasped.
“The big guns?” the king guessed.
“Exactly.” Edmund paused a beat. “Princess Christina.”
“Dear God,” king and prince said in unison.
“S o!” the Crown Princess of Alaska greeted her as she entered the office. “You’re the numbnut who won’t submit to a blood test.” She stuck out an unmanicured hand. Startled, Nicole shook it. “Nice to meet you. I’m Christina.”
“Uh, yeah. I read about your wedding in People. And your daughter’s birth in—”
“News of the Weird?” the princess guessed. Nicole’s hand shot up, too late.
“My God,” Jeffrey-the-annoying gasped. “Was that…a smile?”
“Shhhh, Jeff. Don’t scare her off.”
“Jeff-rey, Your Highness. As we’ve discussed, only His Majesty—
” She spun on him and said, “We’ve been over this a zillion times. You call me Christina, I’ll call you Jeff-rey.”
“He can’t,” Nicole interrupted, smiling again and praying neither of them would comment. “Generations of duty to the royal family. Familiarity is beaten out of them at an early age.”
“Well, screw,” the princess muttered.
“I’ll call you Christina. I’ll also call you ‘see you later’ and ‘thanks for stopping by.’”
“They said you were never at a loss for words,” the perfectly cool, tall, blond woman said. Like every royal she had met so far, she was dressed casually: tan shorts (a bold move in forty-five-degree weather), a T-shirt (another bold move) with the logo I’M THE PRINCESS OF ALASKA, WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?, and a buttercup yellow sweater knotted around her waist. “They also said you looked extraordinarily like Alex and Kathryn, and that’s true, too.”
“Super duper. Well, what’s up? Salmon fishing? Hiking? There’s not much in season if hunting’s your thing…”
“No, thanks. Uh, could you cool out your boss a little? He looks about ten seconds from a stroke.”
Nicole was embarrassed; she’d been so distracted by Jeffrey (who was in his black tailored suit; duh, she should have known this one wasn’t going fishing) and the Crown Pr—Christina that she hadn’t even noticed Freeborg was at his desk.
And Christina was right. He was as pale as the belly of a trout.
“Mike? Mike!” She waved a hand in front of his glazed eyes. “It’s okay. I’m not in any trouble.”