The insistent vibration on his bedside table poked at the corners of Mark’s dream, the same dream he’d had all this life, and the reason he was studying geospatial analytics at North Carolina State University.
He was flying a drone above a strange land that was only familiar because he’d seen it in his dreams so many times. Except instead of holding the controller for his drone, like he would in real life, he was in the sky as if he were riding on the drone. The dream never really ended; something always woke him up.
A soft but firm object hit him in the head, and Mark startled awake to find a Teddy bear staring at him. What the heck?
“Answer your dang phone, Mark,” Alexander growled from the next bed over. “It’s been vibrating off and on for five minutes. Somebody’s obviously trying to reach you.”
Mark sat up and turned on the lamp beside his bed before grabbing his phone. Alex cringed away, pulling his blanket over his head.
“Shut off that light,” Noah grumbled from across their dorm room, and Drew grunted something and turned over to block the intrusive light.
“It’s my dad,” Mark said, glancing down at the caller ID. He noted the time. Three o’clock in the morning. No one called in the middle of the night to share good news. There were no voicemails, just ten missed calls. With trepidation, he touched the green button to answer his father.
“Son, thank goodness,” his father answered without preamble. “Your grandfather is very sick and has requested the family gather. I already have a private jet on route to retrieve you.”
“A private jet? Grandfather? What?” Mark tried to shake the fog from his brain. His three college roommates slowly emerged from their cocoons and sat up, concern and shock on their faces. “What’s wrong with Grandfather?”
“He’s not going to live much longer, son. He’s been sick for a long time. You’ve known that.”
“If you would just bring him to the United States like I’ve been begging you for years, the modern medicines here could save him.”
“You know he will not leave Mexico,” Benjamin said. “You must come here. Today.”
“You want me to just climb on your private jet and fly to Cancun today?”
“Yes, immediately! He insists.”
“He insists? Or you insist?” Mark grumbled.
“You will not speak to me that way, my son.”
Mark knew he had crossed a line and fell back to the ways of his childhood, lowering his tone in respect. “My apologies, Your Highness.”
“Son, I have never asked you to do anything I have not been willing to do myself.”
“I know, father. I’m sorry.”
“Now we must honor your grandfather’s request. Come to his side.”
“As you wish, Your Highness,” Mark said. “I will make haste.”
“Thank you, my son.”
Mark ended his call and was met with three very confused and suddenly wide-awake roommates. Their gaping jaws hung open. Mark set his phone aside and tossed Alexander’s Teddy bear over to him.
“Get dressed,” Mark said to his friends. “We’re flying to Cancun.”
“Take only what you absolutely need,” Marcos said, reaching into his spacious walk-in closet and flicking on the light switch. He turned back to the main sitting room. “It must appear to the royal family and staff as if we are merely going on a holiday to visit Nicolas and Adele and that we’ll return soon.”
“And that is not reality?” Collins gulped.
Marcos stepped closer to his trusted adviser and put his hand on Collins’ shoulder. “I will understand if you don’t want to uproot your life here and follow me to Dubai, and Cancun, and wherever fate leads us after that.”
Collins glanced over Marcos’s shoulder to where Lyla and Nasrin stood near Benjamin’s crib. He cocked his head slightly and there was a subtle question in his eyes. Before Marcos could fully register what had happened, Collins met his eyes again. “We will come with you.”
“We?” Marcos understood the non-verbal communication he’d witnessed was between Collins and Nasrin. “I’m glad to hear that.” There was double meaning to his statement.
“I will follow wherever you lead, Your Highness.” Collins bowed his head.
“As will I,” Lyla said, stepping up beside him and slipping her hand in his.
“And I,” Nasrin stated, sidling up next to Collins, who wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
“I don’t know how soon we’ll return.” Marcos heard the vulnerability in his own words. “I don’t know how soon the king will schedule my coronation, if he will schedule it at all. I have little confidence in his ability to keep his word as long as the Princess of Tayma is controlling him.”
“Then we will wait, Your Highness,” Lyla said. She didn’t often call him that, unless she was teasing. He looked down at his wife in wonderment. She wasn’t teasing. “Let’s go on a second honeymoon… and stay for a really long time.”
“Could we, maybe, go on a first honeymoon?” Collins asked, looking down at Nasrin. “If we’re going to be travelling together… perhaps we should travel as husband and wife.”
“I would really like that,” Nasrin answered, tucking herself into Collins’ arms.
“We can arrange for an officiator when we get to Dubai tomorrow,” Marcos suggested. He wrapped his arm around his adviser’s shoulder, and Lyla wrapped hers around Nasrin’s.
The four of them stood in a loose circle, ready to take on the world, or perhaps escape from the world. Together.
“Let’s finish packing,” Marcos said as they dropped their arms and stepped away from each other. “Get some rest. We have a big day ahead of us.”
“Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Nicholas called out from the shore as Marcos’ new yacht, The Princess of the Desert docked. “Welcome to Puerto Aventuras.”
Their captain had sailed smoothly through the canals to the marina since Marcos didn’t yet own a home with its own boat slip.
Nicholas had already begun quietly shopping around for the prince and his family to purchase a home close to his, but for now, they planned to stay at the Cohen’s compound. They had plenty of room.
Adele had given birth to twin baby boys, Alejandro and Santiago, just two months ahead of young Prince Benjamin. The three boys were destined to grow up as best friends.
Okay, pause. I can't tell you any more from this section. There are too many spoilers. Plus, most of it's not written. What I can do is begin the next story for you. Read Chapter One of the story I'm calling The Crown Prince (for now). In this next book, the main character is Prince Marcos' grandson, who is coincidentally the father of my young princes, if you've read that story. If not, the chapters are available here on my blog under my Top Secret Project. When the series is finally written, this book will come first before the young princes. I just wrote them out of order. Anyway, I hope you love it! Let me know what you think! -Julie
Mark snuck through the quiet hallways as if he was afraid to get caught requesting an audience with his father. The hour was not late, and he’d never had to hide his actions here in his own home.
The light coming from under his father’s door indicated that someone was inside the office. Mark rapped his knuckles lightly and waited.
“It’s open.” King Sayid’s muffled voice gave Mark permission to enter. His office held all the grandeur of any head-of-state. Mark was curious if The Oval Office in America or the Queen of England’s office was as pompous as his father’s. Dark masculine wood furniture accented the off-white sculptured carpet and drapery, gold fixtures, and lighted water feature that trickled down the north wall as if an infinity pool spilled from the ceiling.
“Your Majesty—” Mark bowed in respect upon stepping into the ostentatious room— “May I have a moment of your time.”
“Of course, my son.” The king rose from the desk and came around to offer a leather chair. “You are welcome any time.”
“Thank you, father.” Mark sat in the proffered chair and rubbed his sweaty palms across his pantlegs, forcing himself to breathe evenly. The king sat opposite him on the matching chair.
“What’s on your mind, You Highness?” Sayid asked formally.
“The future of our kingdom, Your Majesty.” Mark took courage and answered in a similar tone. “I want you to name me Crown. Immediately.”
“What brought this on suddenly?” his father asked, cocking his head to the side. “It’s only been a year since your brother died. There’s no hurry.”
“I sense there is urgency,” Mark said. “Especially in light of what happened this evening.”
“What happened this evening?” Sayid spoke dismissively and brushed a fleck of lint from his slacks.
“There was another attempt at harming my wife,” Mark said, not coming right out and saying he suspected Tayma of foul play. He was still reading his father’s reaction.
“I’ll start an inquiry to see if we can figure out who’s behind these… attempts.”
“That’s not good enough, father,” Mark said. “It’s time you made a firm declaration and named me Crown. The kingdom deserves to know your intention for your successor. Jared reminded me on his deathbed, that as long as our father is still alive, I will not be called upon to lead. It is my hope that you will lead our kingdom as long as humanly possible. But the people need to know who will follow you. I am the only viable candidate for Crown and it’s time you state that as a declaration.”
“You’re right, son.” King Sayid pursed his lips and his gaze strayed to the far corner, unfocused and sad. “I think… naming you Crown feels like admitting that my Jared is no longer with us.”
“I miss him too, father.” Mark felt emotion prick his eyes and he forced himself to maintain his dignity. “But we will carry on his legacy as he would want us to.”
“You will do a fine job, serving in his stead.”
“Thank you, father.” Mark bowed. “When should we schedule my coronation?”
“I’ll check with my advisers and determine the appropriate date for a National holiday.”
Before they could discuss the issue further, the door to the king’s office burst open and the Princess of Tayma strode into the room. “Finally. I couldn’t find either of his nannies and thought I was going to have to put Omar to bed without any help. But thankfully I found them both on the back-patio smoking and I insisted that they come inside and do their job—” Tayma stopped short when she realized the king was not alone.
Mark stood slowly and held his chin high, narrowing his eyes at his sister-in-law.
“What is he doing here?” Tayma asked, stepping closer to the king.
“We were just discussing my coronation,” Mark said. “Since your husband died over a year ago and it’s time we got on with naming his successor.”
“My husband’s successor is Omar,” Tayma said confidently.
“I’m talking about the king’s successor,” Mark said. “A crown prince does not have a successor.”
“Minutia.” Tayma waved her hand dismissively. “My son is next in line. Nothing more needs to be discussed.”
“How about if we discuss how your presence in this meeting is not required and you can show your way out the door,” Mark said.
“I already had plans with—eh, a meeting scheduled with—the king prior to your arrival. It is you who needs to leave.”
“So, it’s true?” Mark asked. “The rumors… are true?”
Sayid shoved his hands in his pockets but didn’t bother answering. He held his head high as if he had nothing to apologize about.
“The kingdom seems to be running shy on princes so you’re just gonna dig your claws into the king?”
“That’s an interesting way to view the situation.” Tayma smirked.
“Does mother know about this?” Mark asked his father. “Your… queen.”
“Your mother will always be the queen, son. Even when I take a second wife.”
“You plan to make her a wife?” Mark nearly yelled at his father and pointed at the princess. “She’s your daughter-in-law!”
“Your mother’s not able to have any more children,” Sayid said, his voice calm with reason. “She completely understands my position.”
“Until the princess decides to poison her also,” Mark grumbled. “Then the Princess of Tayma will take her place as the Queen of Madain Saleh. Is that how this will work?”
Tayma stepped over to rest her hand on the king’s arm and turned to Mark with a smirk.
“Will her children call you grandfather?” Mark sneered.
“That’s enough, son.” Sayid’s voice was calm but firm.
“You’re right. It is enough. My wife and I are taking a holiday to visit Nicolas and his family. Let me know what date you decide for my coronation.”
With that, Mark strode confidently from his father’s office, disgusted.
“We need to leave, Your Highness,” Collins said, pulling the double doors to their suite shut behind them. “There have been too many incidents. The three of you aren’t safe here.”
“What happened?” Nasrin asked as Lyla took Benjamin from her arms. The young lady hired to be Lyla’s assistant and trusted adviser had gradually taken on the role of nanny as well.
Lyla still insisted on being Benjamin’s primary caregiver but welcomed the extra set of hands especially during times when she was expected at dinner with the royal family. Mark suspected tonight was the last time Lyla would be told when and where and with whom to eat a meal. She strode over to her favorite intricately carved rocking chair she’d convinced him was required for young mothers and draped a silk scarf across her shoulder to cover any exposed parts while she nursed their baby.
Collins and Nasrin were so frequently in the royal suite that no one was fazed by nursing and diaper changes and cleaning baby spit up off the polished marble floor. Collins had even been known to change a diaper or two and was always on hand to fetch whatever the ladies needed, even if that meant making a run to the market. Mark suspected Collins and Nasrin had grown affectionate toward one another, but no one had come right out to admit anything.
Each of them had a suite of rooms on opposite sides of Mark and Lyla’s to have them easily accessible should they be needed. But the four of them frequently found themselves congregating in the chic sitting area centrally located near the nursery.
“There’s no way I can have that soup tested here in the kingdom because I don’t trust anyone.” Collins paced the marble floor, avoiding the largest of Mark’s prized Persian rugs, visibly distraught.
“I want to speak to the king tonight,” Mark said, collapsing onto the brocade sofa near where his wife fed Benjamin. “But I suspect his answer will be dismissive. He doesn’t seem to see any faults with Tayma.”
“May I speak frankly, Your Highness?” Collins stopped pacing and his expression was one of fear that he would be chastised for whatever he was about to say.
“Of course,” Mark said. “I value your council.”
“I suspect they’re having an affair.”
“What?” Mark sat forward and glared up at his adviser. “The king? And the Princess of Tayma?”
“And I think the queen is aware.”
“How do you know of such things?” Mark rested his elbows on his knees and bowed forward, gripping his hands into his hair as if he could pull the words he’d heard back out of his mind.
“The palace has many eyes and many ears,” Collins said.
“I agree with your adviser’s assessment, Your Highness.” Nasrin stepped closer to Collins, lifting her chin with confidence. “There is talk.”
“And you’ve only now decided to tell me this?”
“Prior to this evening, my suspicion was a hunch. After what happened tonight, I’m quite confident.”
Mark felt his heart plummet. He didn’t want to think of his father that way.
Lyla piped in her opinion. “Did you notice how none of them acknowledged my concern about the soup? And then changed the subject, allowing Tayma to steer the conversation away from my concern about being poisoned?”
“Poisoned?” Nasrin rushed to Lyla’s side, kneeling next to her chair and placing her hand on Lyla’s arm. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Don’t worry, I didn’t actually eat any of the soup.” Lyla patted Nasrin’s hand. “I found the remainder of the conversation fascinating though. Only in a monarchy are a couple’s marital relations a topic of national interest.”
“Your Highness, if I may return to my original concern—” Collins nodded briefly to Lyla and then turned to Mark— “How soon can we leave?”
“We can stay in Dubai until our yacht is ready,” Mark said, standing.
Mark glanced around at his posh surroundings with its gilded tapestries and pure gold accents on hand-carved furniture with the finest craftmanship he desired. He reminded himself his money could recreate the luxury he had come to expect.
He reached his hand down and brushed the backs of his fingers across Lyla’s cheek. “You two please stay with Lyla and Benjamin while I go claim an audience with the king. Depending on his reaction, we’ll leave quietly in the next day or two.”
Mark didn’t wait for anyone’s answer, just strode from the room and pulled the double doors to their suite closed on his way out.
“Does this soup smell funny to you?” Lyla held out her bowl and Mark sniffed. He wrinkled his nose. Although the spacious dining room off the main kitchen was large enough for the whole family to gather around the imported Mahogany table, her question was barely acknowledged by anyone other than Mark and Collins.
“Don’t eat it if it smells funny,” Mark said, leaning down to sniff his own food. It definitely smelled different. He was instantly on alert and glanced at Collins, then picked up Lyla’s bowl. “Would you take this and see if you can find Her Highness a new bowl of soup?”
Translation: have this tested for anything meant to make Lyla sick. Mark didn’t ask the kitchen staff to bring more food; he asked Collins, the only person he knew he could trust.
Too many little coincidences had happened over the past two months since Benjamin had been born, like the poisonous snake curled up under his crib, or the bar of soap in their bathroom that had some sort of irritant on the surface that made them break out in hives.
“Maybe Lyla’s pregnant again,” Tayma said, batting her eyelashes. “That would definitely make her think her food smells funny.”
That garnered the attention of Queen Salaina. “Oh, how exciting. I’ve always hoped for lots of grandchildren.” Her usually proper demeaner relaxed for just a moment, and she slouched forward to reach for Lyla’s hand, squeezing affectionately
“It smelled funny to me as well, Tayma,” Mark said, ignoring his mother. “Maybe you’d like to switch bowls with her?”
“I’ve already finished mine.” She held up her nearly empty bowl. “But thank you for the offer.”
Mark narrowed his eyes at her, and she smirked. He was on to her game, and she knew he was aware that she was behind these little pranks. They wouldn’t be so funny if Lyla or Benjamin got seriously ill, or worse.
“Your Highness,” Collins said softly, standing near Lyla’s side. “I’ve personally prepared you a new bowl of soup.” Collins raised his eyebrows at Mark subtly telling him in their non-verbal communication that he’d take the other bowl to be tested.
“Thank you, Collins.” Lyla leaned over the steaming soup and sniffed. “Much better.” She lifted her spoon and made a show of approving the first bite.
Mark continued to glare at his sister-in-law throughout the rest of the meal.
“To answer your question, Tayma—” Lyla set her spoon on the saucer where her soup bowl rested. “I don’t think I’m pregnant, although we have talked about wanting a little girl someday.”
Mark lifted Lyla’s hand and kissed the back. “A little princess.”
“You’ll have to let us know as soon as you find out,” the queen said. “I’m so excited for you. You’re our only hope for more grandchildren, you know.”
“Can’t my mommy have any more babies?” Omar asked. Now six years old, he was still innocent enough to not realize the underlying implications of his question.
“Your father died, remember?” Tayma said in the condescending voice she faked when talking to her son. “Having babies requires a mommy and a daddy.”
“You can find a new daddy,” Omar said.
Tayma laughed and patted Omar’s head. “Someday you’ll understand.”
“Maybe you should go home to your own kingdom and find some unsuspecting second cousin or something,” Mark said. “You’re still considered royalty over there in Tayma, right princess? You could marry a different prince.”
“I’m not going back to my former kingdom, thank you very much.” She lifted her chin. “Madain Saleh is my kingdom now. And my son, Omar is the only prince who matters.”
“What about my cousin, Benjamin?” Omar asked, looking up at his mom. “He’s a prince too.”
“But he’s not the first-born prince,” Tayma said, wrapping her arm around his shoulder. “You are.”
“On that note,” Lyla said, pushing back her chair. All the men at the table, including the king, stood when she did. “I think it’s time for me to nurse my little prince. If you’ll excuse me.”
Mark stepped aside and tucked his own chair up to the table, as did Collins. Neither had finished their meals. “We’ll come with you, darling. I wouldn’t want you to walk alone.”
“Thank you.” Lyla tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and as they stepped away from the table, King Sayid sat back down and resumed eating.
Mark decided it was time he had a talk with his father. Tonight.
“She’s a masterpiece, Nicholas.” Mark leaned against the sparkling brass railing of the Lady Bountiful the night before its maiden voyage.
With plenty of room for a farewell party of this size, the yacht was a full 200 feet in length, had four decks above the waterline, two decks below, a helipad, two VIP suites in addition to the owner’s suite, a pool and jacuzzi, a movie theater, a massage parlor and beauty salon, a playroom, a bar, and a library.
Mark was a billionaire and a prince, but this felt like a step above luxury. If Nicholas was talented enough to envision the design of this beauty, Mark couldn’t wait to see what he came up with next.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Nick said. “I’m glad you and Lyla could make it all the way down here to see us off.”
“Anxiously awaiting the opportunity to join you on the high seas.” Mark spoke through a fake smile, attempting to hide his plans from anyone who might suspect he was plotting an escape from the desert paradise he called home.
“What’s holding you back from leaving now?” Nick asked.
“Got any extra yachts laying around?” Mark raised his eyebrows.
“Workin’ on it,” Nick said. “We could always charter one.”
“I want my first child to be born in Madain Saleh,” Mark admitted the real reason for his delay.
“Not yet.” Mark shook his head. “Adele?”
“We suspect,” Nick said softly. “But we’re not telling anyone yet.”
“She’s not gonna handle the rough seas very well if she is,” Mark said.
“We realize that,” Nick said. “But this is the best time to leave and the trip will only last a month.”
“Can’t you just fly?”
“And miss the maiden voyage of the Lady Bountiful?” Nick asked playfully. “Not a chance.”
“Okay, okay.” Mark held up his hands in surrender. “Good luck handing a wife with morning sickness on a yacht for twenty-nine days.”
As if on cue, Mark’s own wife Lyla jumped up from the chaise lounge where she was chatting with Adele and ran to the side of the boat right next to Mark. She hung over the side of the railing and threw up the expensive appetizers they’d enjoyed all afternoon.
“You were saying?” Nick asked, wrinkling his nose. “I’ll go get your wife a water bottle and washcloth. Good luck to you as well, Your Highness.” Nick patted Mark on the shoulder as he hurried away.
“Thanks,” Mark said with a grimace, rubbing his wife’s back as she heaved over and over. Mark wasn’t sure whether to be sad the party was over for the night, or excited that this might be a sign of new life. He chose excitement.
“I don’t like you,” Tayma said through clenched teeth and a fake smile.
“No way!” Lyla turned to her with an equally fake smile, sarcasm dripping from her words. She laid her hand on Tayma’s forearm as if they were engaging in girl talk. No one outside a ten-foot radius would have a clue they weren’t the best of friends, and no one could hear them except Mark and Collins. There were bodyguards in between them and the rest of the market square. “And here I thought we were finally having a breakthrough.”
“Not a chance.” Tayma lifted a long, pink scarf off a vendor’s table and held it up to Lyla’s face as if to check whether the scarf was her color. “As long as there’s the possibility that you could have a son and he might challenge my little prince, you will need to sleep with one eye open.”
“Is that a threat, princess?” Lyla asked with a cheerful laugh, glancing behind to offer Mark a smile. He knew she was biting her tongue about the things she wished she could say to Tayma.
“That’s a promise,” Tayma said, draping her arm through Lyla’s as they walked through the dusty town square. Although paved roads and concrete sidewalks attempted to provide a sure footing, the constantly blowing sand swept the pavement clean even as the next layer of sand was deposited.
Mark wasn’t thrilled with the direction this conversation was turning but he wanted to give the women space to get to know one another. He held back and raised his eyebrows to Collins.
“On it,” Collins mumbled, pulling out his cell phone, no doubt ordering additional security for Lyla.
He knew Lyla wasn’t happy here in his kingdom, if that’s what it could be called. The only real benefit Madain Saleh offered to the world was a very deep and very refreshing natural aquifer in an otherwise barren desert wasteland.
Dating back well over two thousand years, this was the only stop between Tabuk and Medina before there were cars.
The original lonely castle still stood, worn by the elements and now used mainly as an historic marker where foreigners came to take pictures with the hieroglyphics and view the ancient tombs.
No longer used for its original purpose, the stone structure had been replaced by a state-of-the-art palace with modern facilities and high-speed internet.
Mark sensed he and Lyla wouldn’t live here much longer. She wasn’t thrilled about the linen scarves wrapped around her head, neck and shoulders, mostly as protection from the elements rather than to show her submissiveness to her husband. She hated the sand and despised her sister-in-law.
He had already begun devising plans on how to get her out of the desert while still maintaining his title and attempting to keep his promise to his older brother.
The Princess of Tayma wasn’t giving up and he wanted to demand she go home to her own kingdom and assert her dominance on someone other than his wife. A beautiful oasis dating back to the sixth century before Christ, Tayma was a kingdom the princess should be proud to call her own. Yet here she was in Medain Saleh, causing more trouble than she was worth.
But she had a little boy who she insisted was next in line to the throne. Mark wouldn’t put it past her to go to extreme measures to keep that status quo, and he intended to get his wife out of her line of fire.
If only he hadn’t promised his brother to help raise his nephew. He’d be free to travel the world with his bride. If only…
“We’re buying a yacht!” Mark announced, bursting through the doors of their bedroom suite.
“Shh… I just got Benjamin to sleep,” Lyla whispered, pulling the blue blanket closer around their baby’s head, covering his little ears.
Mark padded softly across the floor as quietly as he could and leaned down to kiss Benjamin’s forehead, then shifted his focus to kiss Lyla gently.
Benjamin was nestled against her breast, his tiny mouth twitching in a half-smile as if he’d just fallen asleep mid-suck. He’d never looked more beautiful. His mother had never looked more beautiful.
“Want me to take him to his crib?” Mark whispered.
“I suppose.” Lyla shifted forward and gently rolled Benjamin from her arms into Mark’s. He had never felt more love for a creature than he did for this tiny bundle and the woman who nursed him day and night. He thought the love they shared as husband and wife couldn’t be topped until they created life together and his whole world shifted on its axis.
As Benjamin’s face pulled away from Lyla’s breast, his little mouth moved as if begging for more. “I know how you feel, little man. I can never get enough either.” Mark winked at Lyla.
“You, silly guy,” Lyla whispered, tucking herself back into her maternity bra. Benjamin was only four weeks old and the doctor hadn’t officially given them permission to resume a physical relationship. He hadn’t specifically forbidden it either.
Mark didn’t want to push his wife toward anything she wasn’t ready for, but he missed having her in his arms. At the moment he was holding something much smaller in his arms. He rocked his son gently while staring down into his little face, then carefully rolled him into the waiting crib. He propped Benjamin on his side with a rolled up receiving blanket and tucked a larger blanket up around the baby’s sleeping form.
Then he just stood there, gazing down at his son, the most incredible creation he’d ever seen.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Lyla whispered at his side.
Mark shifted and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close. “Almost as beautiful as his mother.”
“His mother is curious to know more about this yacht she’s supposedly purchasing,” she said in a low voice.
“Oh, that’s right,” Mark said, pulling her away from their sleeping baby. “I got a little distracted. Remember how Nicholas and his family bought a ship building company in Dubai?”
“How could I forget? I must have puked over the side of the deck a dozen times while we were onboard for their inaugural sail party.”
“You gotta admit that was a fun way to find out you were pregnant.” Mark chuckled.
“Fun… right, that’s exactly what I was thinking. Good thing I didn’t have much left in me when I puked on your shirt while you were carrying me off the boat.”
“There are easier ways to get me out my clothes, you know?” he said in a husky voice, pulling her close.
“I haven’t gotten you out of your clothes in quite a while,” she said, reaching up and playing with his collar.
“Five weeks, three days and”—he pulled away slightly to glance at his watch— “Thirteen hours. Not that anyone’s counting.”
She tossed her head back with a soft laugh, her eyes gleaming up at him. “You know, Benjamin just had a bath and a feeding and a diaper change. He’ll probably be asleep for a couple of hours.”
“There’s nothin’ sexier than you talkin’ about a diaper change to get your man in the mood,” Mark said, playfully.
“Well, gosh, if you’re not in the mood,” she said, pretending to pull away from him.
“Woman, don’t tease me.” He pulled her back into his arms but handled her delicately, lifting her face to his with feather-light touches. The fragile way she’d gradually recovered from having the baby made him want to take their time and be careful.
Gone was the reckless abandonment from the early days of their marriage. This was a different kind of passion. A slow-burning love that reached into the depths of his soul, and Mark wanted to treasure every moment of it.
He forgot everything he’d planned to tell her and lost himself in their kiss, wishing he could pull her over to their bed but not wanting to rush her. He just held her and kissed her, letting her set the pace.
When she finally pulled away and looked up at him, her eyes betrayed the passion he felt from her kiss. She whispered, “I could use a bubble bath.”
She didn’t have to drop any further hints. Mark lifted her hand to his lips and held her gaze as he backed into the adjoining bathroom, pulling her gently with him.
“Push, Your Highness,” the doctor said. “I need you to push.”
“Aghhhh!!!” Lyla cried out as beads of sweat dripped down her forehead. She squeezed Mark’s hand so hard he thought the bones would break. Her blotchy face was pinched in agony.
“What are you doing to her?” Mark demanded. “Can’t you see she’s in pain? Why is this taking so long?” Mark’s stomach clenched in panic.
“Your Highness, if you are not able to maintain calm, I will pull rank and ask you to leave the delivery room,” the doctor said.
“Don’t you dare leave,” Lyla cried, gripping his hand even tighter. “You did this to me. You’re the one who needed to produce an heir, now you’re going to stay right here until… iiiiiiiow!”
“You’re doing great, Your Highness,” the doctor called out. “One more big push and we’re going to meet our new prince. One more push. You can do it.”
Lyla’s whole face and body grimaced into a shriek of pain and before the doctor could finish his sentence, a burst of energy seemed to power through Lyla’s body and her shoulders relaxed into Mark’s arms. It was over.
The anguish of the previous six hours seemed to disappear in the tiny wail that replaced his mother’s cries of pain.
“Benjamin,” Mark whispered in awe, gazing at the perfect little person the doctor held in his hands.
“Your Highnesses…” the doctor said, ceremoniously. “You have a son.” He reached over Lyla’s hospital gown and laid the squirming, shrieking, slimy boy onto his mother’s chest. Mark’s hand took over, holding the tiny little man in place, his other arm draped around his wife’s shoulders.
“Look what we made, Lyla,” Mark whispered. “We made a boy.”
“We sure did.” Lyla lifted her face to Mark’s and shared a kiss.
“Your Majesty and Your Grace, may I present His Royal Highness, Prince Marcos, and Her Highness, Princess Lyla,” Petra, the king’s most trusted adviser, called out to the nearly full throne room.
Mark stepped from the foyer with Lyla’s hand in the crook of his arm, both wearing formalwear and their crowns, as were the king and queen.
This was to be an unveiling of the new princess to the royal court, and Mark wasn’t sure Lyla was ready.
She held her head high and kept her expression stoic as Mark had coached her, perfectly adhering to the traditions his parents would expect.
Over the next few days she would be gradually introduced to the remainder of the kingdom, first by hosting a less formal party on the patio and spilling out into the square so that Lyla wouldn’t have to travel beyond the patio to be seen.
The following day, Mark would take her into town and introduce her to the local establishments, like his favorite restaurants and government offices.
Next, she would be led on a tour of the hospital to check in on the subjects who were currently unable to attend any of the other activities. At that time, she would be introduced to the doctor who would presumably be her obstetrician, should she need one, and Mark hoped she would.
Mark felt a tiny bit embarrassed that his physical relationship with his new bride was a topic of national interest as her conceiving a child would likely produce the next-in-line to the Crown.
But tonight was all about meeting the dignitaries. The leaders of the government at all levels, the leaders of the military, all locally appointed officials. There were no elected officials as there would be in Lyla’s home country because Madain Saleh was a monarchy rather than a democracy. He wasn’t sure if Lyla had taken that into consideration when she agreed to marry him, or if the idea was disagreeable.
The court also included the queen’s sister and brothers, the king’s sister, and several aunts- and uncles-in law along with multiple cousins he’d never have time to introduce before the end of the evening. Lyla would get to know them in time.
Mark and Lyla walked the length of the room along a perfectly preserved Persian runner, which almost caused Mark to break his stoic expression as he thought of their kiss from earlier in the afternoon.
Before ascending the three marble steps to the elevated platform at the center of the far wall, Mark paused and held his hand along Lyla’s lower back, encouraging her to take a half step forward as if he was physically presenting her as the new princess.
“Your Majesty”—Mark bowed his head briefly. — “And Your Grace, may I introduce my wife, Her Highness, Princess Lyla of Mada’in Saleh.”
Lyla curtsied and bowed her head as he’d coached her, she instinctively mastering the show of respect to her new in-laws.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid nodded regally and held out his hand.
Mark took that as the invitation to approach the thrones and led Lyla up the stairs to where she held her hand out to the king. He didn’t kiss her hand as he’d done when first meeting her in New York, just held hers clasped within both of his.
When Lyla stepped over to greet Queen Salaina, Mark heard his mother whisper, “I can’t wait to give you a hug and welcome you to our family, but that will need to wait until we are out of the public eye.”
“Likewise, Your Grace,” Lyla said quietly and curtsied again.
After they had greeted the king and queen, Mark and Lyla descended the steps once more to where the Princess of Tayma sat with her son, Prince Omar standing at her side, regally holding up his little head as if waiting to relax his stance once given permission. He’d been trained well.
Mark was having none of it. He crouched lower and held out his arms. “How’s my favorite nephew?” he asked with a grin, completely ignoring Tayma.
Omar released a big smile and ran into his uncle’s outstretched arms. Mark lifted him to eye level and Omar wrapped his legs around Mark’s waist and his arms around his neck like he wanted a piggy-back ride. Maybe that was just what this party needed in order to relax and enjoy the evening.
“Your Highness, may I introduce your new nephew, Prince Omar of Madain Saleh,” Mark said, meeting his wife’s gaze. “Prince Omar, this is Princess Lyla, your new aunt.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Your Highness,” Omar stated in his most grown-up voice and bowed his head regally to Lyla.
“Likewise, Your Highness,” Lyla said, returning his nod.
“Ahem,” Tayma said, still sitting on her throne. The chair was much smaller and less regal than the king and queen, but a position of honor in its own right.
“Your Highness, you remember the Princess of Tayma,” Mark said through clenched teeth, then lowered his voice. “From when she so rudely interrupted our homecoming.”
“It is an honor to be formally introduced, Your Highness,” Lyla said with a small curtsy and subtle nod of her head.
“Likewise… Your Highness,” Tayma said with a fake smile and sarcasm lacing her voice. “Welcome to our kingdom.”
“Come, allow me to introduce you to my cousins,” Mark said, shifting Omar to his back for a piggy-back ride. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted with the princess.”
Mark lifted Lyla’s right hand into the crook of his left arm, a subtle reminder that it was not appropriate for her to shake hands with her subjects but merely acknowledge them with a slight nod of her head.
Lyla must have been nervous, but she never showed the slightest sign of apprehension. Mark couldn’t have been prouder of his wife. He winked at her and pulled her gently from one member of court to another, all the while carrying his five-year-old nephew on his back.
“It doesn’t matter how many little princes you and your new princess pop out. My son was still the first born and has claim to the title.” Jared’s widow didn’t wait for Mark and Lyla to get unpacked before she stormed into their personal bedroom suite asserting her dominance and making it very clear she wasn’t backing down.
While Mark and Lyla had been on their honeymoon, the Princess of Tayma had continued to spend a great deal of time with the king and her young son Omar, feigning affection in order to gain favor.
“I don’t need an heir to claim my title,” Mark said with disdain. “As much as I love my nephew, he will never be my king.”
“Mark my words, Marcos,” Tayma said, purposely degrading him with her use of his given name rather than his title. “I will convince your father to name Omar as Crown even if Lyla is pregnant.”
“Her Highness, as you will call her, is not required to be with child for me to claim my title, either. And you would do well to remember your place, princess.”
“That’s Your Highness to you, Marcos,” Tayma said flippantly.
“I will afford your title the respect it deserves when you have earned that respect,” Mark said. “Now leave my residence before I have you arrested.”
“As if.” Tayma flipped her long braid over her shoulder then glanced dismissively at the woman challenging her position. She said with a sickly-sweet voice, “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lyla.” Tayma lifted her chin and marched from the room.
“Gee, she’s friendly,” Lyla said with a chuckle. “I understand now why you were stressed to the point of breaking when we first met. She brings out the worst in you.”
“I apologize that you had to see that side of me,” Mark said. “I will do my best to reign in my anger when dealing with the princess.”
“She’s a handful,” Lyla said. “What did your brother ever see in her?”
“Her title,” Mark said. “Theirs was an arranged marriage.”
“Oh.” Lyla wrinkled her nose. “I’m glad you weren’t Crown back then.”
“Me too. It is tradition that the crown prince marry at the age of sixteen.”
“Sixteen?” Lyla’s jaw gaped. “How old was the princess?”
“Eighteen, I think.” Mark shrugged.
“Dang, she had to marry a little boy. No wonder she’s cranky.”
“How are you holding up?” Mark asked. “Are you completely overwhelmed? I haven’t even presented you to the king and queen yet.”
“Do you always refer to your parents that way?” Lyla asked.
“I slip occasionally, but it’s a good habit to get into just to maintain their status as a rule of thumb and then we don’t make mistakes in front of the staff or members of the community.”
“Good point, I guess.” Lyla slumped into a chair, defeated. “To answer your question, yes, I am overwhelmed. But I’m a big girl. I can handle it.”
“What do you think of your living quarters, Your Highness?” Mark spun around, holding out his arms to show off the grandeur in which she would be living.
“Love the Persian rugs,” she said with a teasing grin. “Hate the sand.”
“I will ignore your comment about the sand since we met in Dubai. If you hadn’t wanted to live within the blazing desert, you wouldn’t have come to the Middle East.” Mark laid himself down on the large Persian rug in the middle of their bedroom and propped himself on his elbow, wagging his eyebrows at her.
“I was on vacation, Your Highness. If you remember correctly, it was never my intention to get married at all.” Lyla stalked forward like a lioness on the attack.
When she got close enough, Mark grabbed her playfully and rolled her onto the carpet, growling and tickling her neck.
“Stop!” Lyla cried out. “You’re gonna make me pee my pants.”
“Not on the Persian rug, woman.” Mark pulled back but kept a gleam in his eye. “This thing cost more than my Range Rover.”
“I guess you better stop tickling me then.” Lyla relaxed into Mark’s arms and he lowered his face to hers for a lingering kiss.
“Your Highness, is everything all right?” Collins came rushing into their bedroom suite, the door of which was still wide open from when Tayma stormed out. “Oh! I am so sorry!” Collins started backing out of the room with his hand covering his eyes.
“Collins, stop,” Mark called. “Come back. We were just goofing around.” He sat up and offered a hand to Lyla.
“Yes, His Highness was just showing me the… lovely furnishings in my new bed chambers. Isn’t that right, darling?” Lyla raised her brows and batted her eyelashes at Mark.
“Her Highness is quite fond of Persian rugs,” Mark explained to his manservant and he and Lyla both cracked up.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed your… uh… tour of her new chambers,” Collins said. “I’ll just pull the door closed on my way out.”
“Wait, no, please.” Mark scrambled to get off the floor and helped Lyla up as well. “I need your help.”
“How can I be of service, Your Highness?” Collins lowered his head in a respectful bow.
“We are expected to make an appearance before the king and queen, and then to have dinner with them,” Mark said. “I will need to be dressed for the occasion, as will Her Highness. Have we secured a lady for her? And have her belongings been delivered?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Collins said. “The princess will find that her things have been arranged in her closet and can be rearranged to her liking. Shall I send up her maid?”
“Uh… in a few hours,” Mark said. “We just arrived and will need some time to… uh… rest after our long flight. Travelling… ya know.” Mark’s attention was drawn once again to his wife, who raised her eyebrows and smirked.
“May I now be excused and pull the door shut on my way out?” Collins asked, a hint of desperation at the end of his question.
“Please do…” Mark’s gaze never left his wife’s as he pulled her gently in the direction of their large, marble bathroom. He barely registered the main door to the suite latching quietly as he raised his brow suggestively. “Bubble bath?”
“Heck yeah.” Lyla said, pulling closed the door to the spacious bathroom, offering that little extra degree of privacy.
An audience with the king and queen could wait. They had more important things to do first.
“Help me understand this,” Adele said, setting aside the iced horchata she’d been sipping. “What is your official title, and what am I supposed to call you? Your Grace?”
“Please, just call me Lyla.” The subtle blush on her cheeks reminded Mark how uncomfortable she still was with everything that involved his status.
Mark was nervous to bring Lyla home to Madain Saleh and glad they’d chosen to take a few weeks alone on the other side of the world where they could get to know one another as husband and wife before assuming their positions as a prince and princess.
“Our kingdom is not the same as a monarchy in Europe,” Mark explained to Nick’s wife. “Our hybrid traditions date back a thousand years and have been adapted through the centuries as times have changed. I’m pretty sure my ancestors didn’t conduct diplomatic meetings by video conference on their smart phones.”
“No, I suppose not.” Adele’s brow creased. “I still don’t get it though.”
“Lyla will be referred to mostly as Her Highness,” Mark explained.
“Then why do you keep calling me Your Grace?” Lyla asked with skeptical teasing.
“When you are my queen, that will be your title.” Mark lifted Lyla’s hand to his lips and winked at her playfully.
“I have a question,” Nick said, leaning forward. “You’re not having some weird Freudian obsession about your mother when you call your wife Your Grace… are you?”
“Thank you for placing that disgusting thought in my head, Nicholas.” Mark shoved his best friend’s shoulder. “I’m merely looking forward to becoming king someday.”
“That’s why he married me after all,” Lyla said, feigning haughtiness. “So he could obtain the title of Crown Prince.”
“I don’t get it,” Adele said. “I thought Jared was the crown prince.”
Mark’s heart plummeted when he realized they hadn’t heard. Laughter faded from his smile and Lyla took his hand for comfort. He swallowed hard. “You haven’t heard the news?”
“What news, my friend?” Nick’s brows creased.
“Jared lost control on his motorcycle and barely lived another 24 hours.” Mark’s voice caught. “The accident happened the night of your wedding, actually.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, Marcos,” Adele said, scooting her chair closer to her husband. “His wife and their little boy must be devastated.”
“The Princess of Tayma is not capable of raising our future king.” Mark raised his chin and set his jaw. “Jared told me himself. He asked me to raise their son in his stead and I have refused to recognize my five-year-old nephew as my future king.”
“If not him… than who?” Nick asked, cocking his head to the side. “You?”
“As my father has rightfully acknowledged, we are in unchartered waters with this regard,” Mark said. “Never before in the history of our kingdom has the crown prince died prior to the king. As the only prince who is of age, I have claim to the crown, and Tayma has challenged my claim. She insists her son is the rightful Crown.”
“But he was next in line… right?” Nick asked.
“Next in line is not the same as Crown.” Mark shook his head definitively. “The named Crown must be of age and sound mind capable of taking on the role of King in his absence should the inevitable occur.”
“And that would be you?” Nick asked.
“Correct.” Mark nodded.
“What’s that got to do with Lyla?” Adele asked.
“His daddy wants him to have a baby before naming him Crown,” Lyla teased.
“I believe the words he used were a wife and an heir,” Mark clarified. “We have taken on that challenge and will work hard to complete the task. It’s a difficult job but someone has to do it.”
“Frequently.” Lyla faked a cough and they all laughed.
“Neither of us are complaining,” Mark said with a grin.
“Well, we wish you luck in your endeavor,” Nick said, raising his glass of hibiscus aqua fresca in a toast. “May the best man win in his race to produce an heir.”
“Excuse me,” Adele cut in. “I believe the women are they who will produce the heirs. Am I right, Lyla?”
“Absolutely,” Lyla said. “Although you’ve had a three-week head start. I’m not sure it’s a fair race.” Lyla pouted and batted her eyelashes at Mark.
“We’re just going to have to work overtime to catch up,” Mark stage-whispered to his wife.
“On that note, I think it’s time to call it a night, don’t you?” Nick suggested. They all laughed again but didn’t linger too many more minutes at the restaurant.
The night was young, and Mark intended to take full advantage of the moonlit romance of Puerto Aventuras before returning to the real world and flying back to his kingdom, his new princess in tow.
They planned to honeymoon in Cancun, but after careful research, Mark found an all-inclusive resort down the coast in a little town called Puerto Aventuras. The resort was named Barcelo Maya Palace, which Mark thought was fitting for a prince and his new princess.
They didn’t disclose their titles when reserving a suite. But checking into the resort required presenting identification. He’d hoped to remain anonymous for a few days to be alone with his bride but cringed when he reluctantly handed over his passport and diplomatic identification.
The desk clerk’s eyes grew large as she examined the card and started typing his information into the computer.
Mark leaned closer and insisted in a firm tone that she not mention his title in her reference. “Por favor no incluya mi titulo en tu notas. Senor sera suficiente.”
“Si, Your High—uh, Senor.” She handed him back his identification.
“Gracious,” Mark thanked her.
“Senora?” the clerk nodded to Lyla.
“Si, Gracious,” Mark said.
“El conserje lo acompanara a su suite.” She handed their key to the concierge and nodded regally.
Mark held his arm to escort Lyla to their room and slipped a hundred-dollar bill into the young man’s hand after he carried in their luggage.
The door barely closed behind the concierge and Mark pulled Lyla into his arms hungrily, ready to pick up where they’d left off in New York City. Or more accurately where they’d left off in the private suite to the rear of the jet they’d chartered from New York to Cozumel.
Now that he knew what he’d been missing all these years, he had no desire to do anything that didn’t involve kissing his wife.
They eventually ventured down to one of the six restaurants at the resort, and took several walks on the sandy, white beaches but mostly stayed in their suite and ordered room service.
On the fifth day after arriving at the resort, Mark’s cell phone rang. He rarely received phone calls unless there was an emergency or diplomacy assignment. He wasn’t keen on either of those circumstances but was pleased to see Nicholas Cohen’s name on the caller ID.
“Nick!” Mark answered with enthusiasm. “How’s married life treating you?”
“I could ask you the same thing, Your Highness,” Nick said. “I understand congratulations are in order.”
“Married life is heaven, if that’s what you’re asking.” Mark traced his fingers along Lyla’s spine, loving the graceful way her body was sprawled on the bed at his side. “I’m assuming that’s why you called.”
“I called to inform you that I’m thoroughly offended you didn’t invite me to your wedding considering you were my best man a mere three weeks prior.” Nick chuckled on the other end of the line. “Is it true you met her the night I got married? My younger brother regaled me with the tale when I called to check in.”
“Your younger brother tells stories,” Mark said. “And to my great pleasure I will confirm that they are all true. And it would have been easier to invite you to my wedding had you not been on your honeymoon.”
“Would you agree”—Nick lowered his voice in conspiracy— “That marriage is by far the best experience earthly possible?”
“Wholeheartedly,” Mark said. “Why on earth did we wait so long?”
“I have no excuse save my own idiocy,” Nick said. “But you hadn’t met your bride yet. Tell me her name. Jacob couldn’t remember.”
“Princess Lyla of Madain Saleh,” Mark said regally. “Formerly of the Donovan family in the kingdom of New York, which I have learned is in the northern American continent.”
“I would like to meet this princess of yours,” Nick said. “Would the two of you be available for dinner this evening?”
“Not unless you want to fly to Cancun.” Mark chuckled.
“I’d much rather take the ferry from Cozumel,” Nick said. “Considering Adele and I are standing on the deck awaiting our departure.”
“What are you doing on Cozumel?” Mark sat up in bed, pulling the sheets with him by mistake and becoming momentarily distracted when the sheets slid off his wife’s lower backside. He wondered if his hunger for her would ever be fully satiated. He reluctantly lifted the sheet over her sleeping form, recognizing her need for rest.
“We’ve been honeymooning here for a month,” Nick said. “But alas, our time on the island has concluded and our trunks are now aboard this ferry and will be transported to our new suite, which, coincidentally, is one floor down from yours.”
“You’re coming to Puerto Aventuras? Today?”
“We will be there in less than two hours,” Nick said.
“I’m not getting out of bed that soon, so you’ll have to wait to see us until the dinner hour,” Mark said.
“Understandable,” Nick said. “I’m sure we’ll need a siesta between now and then as well.”
“Nick!” Adele was in the background chastising her new husband.
“Feel free to call me when you’ve awoken from your… nap,” Mark said, “And we’ll arrange to meet you downstairs. There is a fabulous French restaurant here at the resort, which is ironic considering we’re in Mexico.”
“I do love good French cuisine,” Nick said. “Anyway, the boat is preparing to depart, and my wife is eyeing me with disdain for sharing private details about our plans for the afternoon. Ow! Quit smacking my arm. Turn around is fair play, you know.”
Adele was giggling and laughing loud enough for Mark to hear her through the phone, and he could imagine the tickle war Adele had instigated.
“I’m going to hang up now, Nicholas. Call me later.”
“Goodbye Your Highness.” Nick had laughter in his voice as the line went dead.
“Who’s on the phone?” Lyla slurred through a sleepy yawn, barely lifting her head.
“Nick and his wife are on their way from Cozumel and will be joining us for dinner,” Mark said. “Wanna take a bubble bath with me in the Jacuzzi tub?”
“Umm hmm,” she barely responded. “But sleep first.”
“I could use a few moments of sleep, myself,” Mark said.
Lyla rolled over into his arms and snuggled close. Resting her head in the crook of his arm, she mumbled, “I love you, Marcos.”
That was the first time she’d vocalized her feelings for him. He’d mentioned on the day he’d proposed that love grows over time and no truer words could be spoken. “I love you too, my princess.”
“How is this supposed to work?” Mark gulped. Nothing in movies and television prepared him for this moment. Standing there, together, alone in their honeymoon suite. He wasn’t sure of the next step.
His best friend growing up was even more inexperienced than he was. His brother had gotten married when Mark was fourteen and in boarding school. The idea of asking his father about sex was ludicrous. Collins had never been married. Nick’s brothers had been less than good examples of healthy relationships.
“They make it look so easy in the movies,” he said, adding a nervous chuckle to the end of his statement. He rubbed his sweating palms down the front of his pants.
“Who makes what look easy?” Lyla asked, pulling her long curls over one shoulder. “Can you help me with these?”
All down the back of her elegant wedding dress were dozens of tiny buttons made of pearls. Without considering the implications of what he was doing, he stepped forward and deftly unhooked the top pearl from its latch of silk threads, then the next, and the next. “The wedding night.”
“Oh, please don’t tell me you’ve never…” Lyla chuckled and snorted.
Mark pulled his hands away from the delicate pearl buttons and took a step back, every vulnerable experience of his life paling in comparison to this moment. She was laughing at him. His new bride was laughing at him on their wedding night. He shoved his hands in his pockets, still wearing most of his uniform, other than the jacket which was now draped on the back of a chair.
Lyla turned halfway, the train of her dress reaching across the floor like an alluvial fan, the silk clinging to her hourglass shape as the bodice twisted like an elegant winding staircase of tiny pearl buttons, the top three of which were now unlatched, presumably waiting for his fingers to return and finish the job.
Her porcelain face so subtly brushed with simple, conservative tones hung in resigned confusion. “Oh my gosh… you haven’t.”
There wasn’t a question or a hint of humor. Mark raised his chin with resolve, no longer embarrassed. More offended that she would assume he had. “I would never dishonor my wife by giving myself to another woman.”
“You’ve never even been tempted?” Lyla asked, her expression softened from confusion to awe.
“Not until I met you.” Mark lowered his gaze, embarrassed by how much he’d been tempted by her the night he proposed. After a shaky breath he steeled himself to meet her gaze again.
“But you promised you’d spend every night for the rest of our lives making me feel good,” she reminded him, a coy smile playing on her lips.
“And I fully intend to keep my promise.” His voice had lowered to a husky whisper. “I’m just not entirely sure how to shift from restraint to abandon.”
“I’ll just have to teach you then.” Lyla’s dress coiled around her legs as she turned and practically fell into his arms, tripping over the train.
“How?” Mark chuckled, catching her.
“How what?” Lyla giggled, looking up at him with flirting eyes.
“How are you going to teach me?” Mark asked. “You’ve never been married before, have you?”
“Oh Mark”—Lyla gulped— “You don’t think… you do. Don’t you.”
Mark’s heart plummeted into his stomach when he realized the implication of what she was saying.
“Marcos, you never asked any questions before you proposed to me,” Lyla said, no apology in her voice. “You said the only thing that mattered was how we felt in each other’s arms.”
“I never dreamed that you…” His voice trailed off, realizing this was partially his own fault. He should have learned more about her before marrying her.
“He and I were living together,” Lyla said, her arms folded across her chest. “Right up until he saw the videos on social media of you and I kissing in the gardens at the Cohen’s resort, and then me accepting your proposal.”
“Wow.” Mark wasn’t even sure what to say to that.
“Maybe I got caught up in the moment. Maybe I couldn’t get you off my mind from the first time you looked me in the eye. Maybe we were meant to be together. I don’t know.”
“I always assumed the woman I married would be… I guess those were naïve, childish expectations.”
“Would you like me to offer you an annulment?” Lyla challenged.
Mark raised his gaze back to hers in shock and confusion. “Why?”
“Since you need a princess who is a pure virgin to produce an heir, and I am obviously not.”
“That is not what I’m saying, Lyla,” Mark backtracked. “The admission merely took me by surprise.”
“I’m not going to apologize to you or try to be something I’m not.”
“I would not ask that of you,” Mark said, remembering how he’d felt a few moments ago when she’d learned the truth about his past, or lack thereof. Vulnerable. He’d felt nervous and vulnerable.
Mark stepped around behind Lyla again and calmly reached for the next pearl button.
“I owe you an apology,” Mark whispered.
“Why?” Lyla asked in a soft voice.
“I’m sorry if I made you feel anything less than happiness and love after the promise I made.” He continued loosening pearl buttons, distracted by the milky-white skin of her exposed back.
“The expression on your face right after you kissed me for the first time…” She hesitated and he almost held his breath, anticipating what she was about to ask. “What were you thinking about?”
“I was thinking about… being married to you.” He resumed unbuttoning her dress, tempted to rip the remaining pearls from their confinement. “How I wished we were already married so I could take you up to my suite.”
“And what would you have done with me once we were there?” she whispered as the last pearl slipped out of the little silk clasp.
Mark’s fingers trailed up Lyla’s exposed back and very gently slipped the silk wedding dress over her shoulders. The heavy fabric collapsed in a heap around her feet. He lowered his lips to her neck and whispered close to her ear. “I would have done whatever my body instinctively wanted to do.”
Lyla slowly turned around so she was facing him, her gaze meeting his. Mark’s hands slipped around her waist; the softness of her skin more enticing than the silk wedding dress had been. “Show me.”
“Show you what?” Mark could barely breathe, nerves and anticipation battling in his chest.
“Show me what you wanted to do that night,” Lyla said. “Now that we’re married, you don’t have to wait a minute more to have me in your arms. Show me.”
Mark hesitated for a few more seconds, then lifted his new wife into his arms and carried her to the bed.
Most royal weddings have more than ten people in attendance. Most royal weddings require greater than a three-week planning window. Most royal weddings take place in the country-of-origin of the royal family.
Mark and Lyla just wanted to legally and formally join their lives so they could go on their honeymoon to Cancun. The more time they spent together the more fun they had.
As little as they knew of one another; their families knew even less. Neither set of parents were aware of how little time the kids had spent together before agreeing to marry.
Keeping the secret was half the fun. Mark and Lyla spun tales of walking in the garden at the resort, without mentioning they’d only taken one walk. They described sitting together at a table with their friends at the tiki bar, without mentioning they’d only been at the table for less than two minutes. They described playing in the pool, without mentioning they’d both been wearing formal attire or that the encounter had lasted fewer than eight minutes.
As far as their parents were concerned, they’d had a whirlwind romance lasting almost two weeks. The more time they spent telling stories the more it felt as if they had indeed spent weeks together.
Collins stood up with Mark even though the best man should have been Nicholas Cohen, who was still on his honeymoon.
Lyla had her two best friends, Deb and Cory, as her bridesmaids. Add two sets of parents and one Aunt Carol, and there were more hotel staff than wedding attendees, including the bride and groom.
When Mark first saw Lyla standing at the top of the curved staircase his breath caught. The wedding planner had staged her dress to rest in an elegant flair on the patterned carpet. Lyla’s instructions were to stand there holding the elegantly simple bouquet of cascading, inverted calla lilies and glance demurely down at her groom. Mark was led to the bottom of the short flight of stairs after she had already been placed so the photographer could capture the moment when he saw his princess for the first time.
Most of the pageantry of the wedding was to create photographs featuring the prince and his bride, the king and queen, the bride’s parents and the tiny wedding party. Every little step of the ceremony was carefully and meticulously staged to provide the perfect collection of photographs.
The Mayor of New York City officiated, and King Sayid offered a solemn coronation afterward, placing an elegant little crown atop his new daughter-in-law proclaiming her as Princes Lyla Sayid of Mada’in Saleh, using the traditional pronunciation.
There was nothing more beautiful than when she rose from her formal curtsy and lifted her eyes to meet Mark’s gaze. For the second time that evening, Mark’s breath caught. Emotion choked off whatever words he could have used to describe her beauty.
As if speaking to a room full of attendees, the mayor pronounced them husband and wife, and the king announced them as their royal highnesses, and Mark didn’t need permission to know what came next.
He gently pulled Lyla into his arms, being careful not to crush her dress or mess up her makeup and kissed his bride. Again, mostly for the pageantry and photo ops. The real kissing would take place later that evening when the cameras were gone.
When the parents were gone, and the friends were gone, and the staff was gone, and doors to their presidential suite were closed.
Collins was the last person to say goodnight to the bride and groom because he had one last duty to perform. He was to instruct Lyla in the proper procedure to formally remove Prince Marcos’ crown.
As Mark was seated at the dressing table in their private suite, still in his royal uniform, he watched in the mirror as his most trusted advisor reverently explained each step of the procedure.
When Lyla’s hands lifted the crown from his head, their gazes met in the mirror and the moment was almost spiritual. Her eyes fluttered with unshed tears until one tear slipped down each of her cheeks.
Mark was reminded of that moment on the day they’d met when he’d caught her wrist before she reached his head. His prophetic words telling her she couldn’t touch his crown until she was his wife had come full circle.
Lyla carefully placed the crown in its velvet and Mahogany box and tucked the box in its leather satchel.
In continued reverence, Mark rose from the settee and Lyla took his place. A smaller velvet and Mahogany box lay open to receive the princess’ crown and Mark lifted the gold band inset with diamonds from his bride’s head and placed it in the box. The small box nested atop the box where his crown was stored, and he closed the leather satchel.
Mark performed one last ceremonial and symbolic action by lifting the leather satchel from the dressing table and placing it in Collins’ hands for safe keeping.
“Your Highness,” Collins said with a subtle bow, then turned to Lyla and bowed to her as well. “And, Your Highness. I will see you back at the palace in Madain Saleh. Enjoy your honeymoon.”
With that, Collins strode from the suite, pulling the door closed with a soft click.
King Sayid of Madain Saleh arrived at the Baccarat Hotel with his queen and entourage to very little fan fair. He was a private man who mostly stayed within the walls of the palace in his tiny kingdom.
Mark was ready to greet his father wearing a formal suit and simple crown, his fiancé at his side wearing an evening gown and sparkling diamond ring.
The crystal chandeliers and lighting, together with the black and white motif of the reception room offered an elegant backdrop for the royal family to meet their future princess and her parents.
“Your Majesty”—Mark offered a formal bow to his father. “May I present Miss Lyla Donovan and her parents, Wesley and Rebecca Donovan.”
Mark had coached the Donovan’s in advance that it was not necessary for them to bow to his parents because they weren’t subjects. They were to merely offer their hand, palm down, for the king to choose how he would prefer greeting them. When greeting each of the ladies, he pulled their hands to his lips for a kiss, and when he came to Wesley, the king shook his hand like any two men greeting one another.
The opposite was the case when greeting the queen. She presented her gloved hand to the Donovan’s, palm down, and gave each of the ladies’ hands a friendly squeeze, like kindred spirits. Lyla also chose to offer a subtle curtsy to the woman who would soon be her mother-in-law. Wesley kissed the queen’s hand in much the same way the king had kissed his wife and daughter’s hands.
Formalities aside, the king and queen retired to their suite for an hour or two to get settled and dressed for dinner. Mark and the Donovan’s were led to an informal sitting room where they were served light cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
“Thank you for humoring them,” Mark said, sitting on a settee next to Lyla, draping his arm around the back of the sofa. “You’ll get to know them better at dinner.”
“They seem lovely,” Rebecca said, reaching for a plate.
“Your mother is… elegant,” Lyla said. “And formal.”
“That she is.” Mark chuckled. “She is a queen first, and a mother second. I know she loves me, but I had several nannies.”
“Is that what”—Lyla gulped and lowered her gaze to her hands folded in her lap, which were shaking. She suddenly lifted her chin and locked her eyes with his— “Is that what you want for your wife?”
“Just the opposite.” Mark placed his hand on top of hers, hoping to calm her nerves. “I want you to walk by my side, as an equal. And I want to help raise our children. Together.” He gave her hands a light squeeze and winked.
“Maybe,” Lyla suggested, a playful gleam in her eye. “We could just have a nanny to change the diapers.”
They all chuckled at that, and Mark decided to change the subject. “How did the shopping go this morning?”
“We found the most elegant wedding dress with dozens of tiny buttons made of pearls with loops of silk thread to hold each one in place,” Lyla said, pulling out her cell phone. “Here, I’ll show you some pictures.”
“You most certainly will not, young lady,” Lyla’s mother said, snatching the phone away. “The groom is not allowed to see your dress before the wedding.”
“Oh my gosh, that is so old fashioned, mother.” Lyla shook her head then turned back to Mark. “Anyway, we were lucky to find something off the rack that needed very little alteration.”
“What about in your country, Mark?” Wesley asked. “What would a wedding be like in—how do you pronounce the name again?”
“In modern days the pronunciation has shortened from the more formal Mada’in Saleh. Most people eliminate the extra syllable in Mada’in and pronounce it Madain.”
“And why have we never heard of your kingdom prior to now? Why isn’t it on the map?”
“Oh, it is,” Mark said. “If you know where to look. Because we are completely contained within the country of Saudi Arabia, most people just consider us to be part of that country. But we are a sovereign nation, neither subject to nor controlled by the Saudis. We are quite dependent on their protection, however.”
“Understandably,” Wesley said.
They were interrupted by the hotel staff presenting them with samplings of the meal that would be presented the night of the wedding, including a few bites of an elegant cake that melted in Mark’s mouth.
By the time the king and queen returned from their suite prepared for dinner, Mark and the Donovan’s were no longer hungry. They went along anyway. Meals were rarely intended for satiating a person’s appetite; rather an opportunity for diplomacy.
That night was no exception. The king started most discussions with a question for Lyla or the Donovan’s. Mark played mediator, helping lead the conversation toward an answer that would be comfortable for everyone, addressing potential concerns before they were even voiced. He was a gifted diplomat and had seen more of the world than everyone else at the table combined.
He felt confident he could pull this wedding off. He was hopeful anyway.
When the head of state from one country visits another country, it’s customary to have a formal meeting between the two heads of state. Mark’s father, King Sayid of Madain Saleh arranged to fulfil that requirement before travelling to New York City.
Mark had no desire to detour through Washington D.C. or meet the president of the United States. He was ready to meet his future in-laws. He commanded the limo driver to take him straight to Lyla’s parents’ historic residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, not far from where the royal family would be staying at the Baccarat Hotel.
Because his parents had yet to arrive in New York City, Mark was able to stay under the radar and arrived at the Donovan’s front door without incident.
Lyla and Mark had been texting and video chatting and calling multiple times a day trying to get their story straight so that her parents would believe they met and fell in love over the course of the whole two weeks Lyla had been in Dubai rather than her agreeing to marry him after spending five minutes together in a pool.
There was nothing fabricated about their chemistry. From the moment Mark stepped in the foyer their bodies were like magnets. Their fingers intertwined and barely let go long enough for Mark to shake Lyla’s dad’s hand.
Mark tried to reign in his speech and cadence to not sound haughty. He wanted Wesley and Rebecca Donovan to feel at ease and agree that their daughter was making a good choice.
The big question remained unanswered and Mark knew they’d have to address the inevitable over dinner: what’s the rush? Why were they in such a big hurry to get married? He and Lyla had decided honesty would be best in this instance, so Mark didn’t wait for someone else to broach the subject.
After eating the obligatory first several bites of his filet, he dabbed his mouth with a cloth napkin and rested it in his lap before reaching for his glass of red wine. He hoped he’d waited long enough into the meal, then took a deep breath.
“I need to explain something to you, Mr. and Mrs. Donovan,” Mark started.
“Please, you’re welcome to call us Wesley and Rebecca,” Lyla’s mom said with a warming smile.
“Thank you, Rebecca.” Mark nodded regally to the woman who would soon be his mother-in-law. “I want you to know that I fell hard for your daughter. Infatuation at first sight, you might say. We realize love grows over time.” Mark chuckled and cleared his throat.
Lyla reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze, encouraging him to continue.
“But we don’t have a lot of time,” Mark continued.
“What do you mean by that?” Wesley sat forward and leaned his elbows on the table, clasping his hands over his plate. His furrowed brow showed suspicion.
“My brother died suddenly a few weeks ago,” Mark said. “In a motorcycle accident actually.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Rebecca said, leaning forward and placing her hand over the top of Mark’s in a comforting, motherly gesture. “I’m so sorry.”
Mark wondered what it would have been like to have a mother growing up rather than a prim and proper queen and several nannies. “Thank you.”
“What does that have to do with you marrying our daughter?” Wesley asked, pursing his lips.
“Well, because my brother, Jared was the crown prince, his son would be next in line for the throne, but my five-year-old nephew is too young to be named Crown. My father would like me to have an heir before naming me Crown.”
“I’m confused…” Wesley cocked his head to the side. “You just need my daughter so you can have a baby?”
“Not just a baby, Sir. An heir. I would never defile a woman by giving myself to her before a proper marriage.”
“And you think my daughter is the proper woman for the job?”
“Daddy…” Lyla glared across the table at her father.
“I would like to hope that marriage will not be a job.” Mark turned himself toward Lyla and rested his hand against her cheek lightly, ever so slightly rubbing his thumb on her cheek, wishing he could kiss her. His voice lowered in reverence, speaking directly to Lyla’s heart even as the words were initially intended for her father. “I will treat your daughter like the princess she is, and the princess she will become.”
Lyla sighed and her eyes glazed over. She turned her face toward his hand and kissed his palm. Mark almost lost control and pulled her into his arms right there at the dining room table.
“All right. You’ve convinced me,” Wesley said. “You have my blessing.”
“Thank you, Sir. I wouldn’t have wanted to go forward without your blessing,” Mark said, sincerely, then turned to Rebecca. “I’m sorry that we’re not giving you much time to shop for dresses, and I apologize that you may have to choose a dress off-the-rack, rather than custom-made, but you have my fortune at your disposal. Please, spend as much as necessary to provide Lyla with a gown fitting a princess.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mark,” Rebecca said. “We wouldn’t expect you to pay for our daughter’s wedding dress. Nor expect something custom-made.” She coughed lightly.
“Under normal circumstances you would have plenty of time to prepare for these things. I just want you to know that you have my support.” Mark turned to Lyla. “Would you like to accompany me tomorrow to pick out wedding rings? Or would you prefer to have a jeweler bring a selection here so we can avoid drawing attention to ourselves?”
“We will need to get used to being seen in public,” Lyla said. “No time like the present to start. There are lots of famous people in this town. We might just be like any other shoppers.”
“Not discounting that viral video that plastered your names and faces all over the free world,” Rebecca said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, we may have gotten carried away with that kiss.” Lyla shook her head and giggled.
“My fault,” Mark said. “I got caught up in the moment.”
“Okay, can we talk about something else besides kissing my little girl, and”—Wesley visibly shuddered— “Having babies with her.”
“My apologies, Sir.” Mark cleared his throat. “How about those Giants? Yankees? What sport team am I supposed to know about?” Mark asked Lyla through the side of his mouth. She giggled again.
“I’m more of an academic myself,” Wesley said.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Mark said with sigh. “I know nothing about sports.”
“Do you play chess?” Wesley raised his eyebrows.
“Perfect,” Wesley said. “Let’s finish this lovely dinner my wife prepared and head into the lounge.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Mark said, holding up his glass of wine. They all raised their glasses in a subtle toast and Mark winked at Lyla. They’d gotten through the hard part. The rest was just wedding planning, and Mark suspected Lyla and her mother had already begun picking out flower arrangements.
“There she is Collins.” Mark pointed at a small round table where Lyla and two other women sat in the open patio area between the pool and the tiki bar. “What should I do?”
“You flew all this way. Maybe you should walk over and talk to her.”
Mark took a deep breath and started forward. “Wish me luck.”
“I’m coming with you, Your Highness. It’s what you pay me for.” Collins fell into step a little to Mark’s right and one foot behind. “Besides, her older friend is smokin’ hot. You’re introducing me as your wingman, not your manservant.”
“Then I’d suggest you stop calling me ‘Your Highness’ and start calling me Mark.”
“I can do that, Your—uh, okay, that’s going to be more difficult than I thought. How about you refer to me as merely your trusted adviser.”
They were halfway across the patio and Lyla hadn’t noticed him yet.
But her friend did, and she tapped Lyla on the arm, pointing at Mark and Collins.
A strange expression crossed Lyla’s face. Confusion? anger? awe? frustration? exasperation? “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lyla said.
“Ladies, mind if we pull up a chair and buy you a drink?” Mark asked boldly. He swung an empty chair around from the next table and straddled it, leaning his arms against the back, directly across the table from Lyla so that he was able to look her in the eye.
Collins also pulled up a chair but sat in a more conventional manner.
“What are you doing here, Your Majesty?” Lyla asked with a sneer.
“Your Highness, actually,” Mark corrected her. “Your Majesty would be my father, the king.”
“You’re offending her again,” Collins stage whispered.
“Ya think?” Lyla’s eyes widened.
“I realize my proposal over the telephone was in poor taste, so I have come to formally request your hand in marriage,” Mark said. “May I be introduced to your father?”
“No, I cannot be introduced to your father?” Mark asked. “Or no, you won’t marry me?”
“Both,” Lyla said. “We are not in love and I will not marry a man just so he can produce an heir. I really don’t care if you lose your stupid kingdom. I will not marry you, Your Highness.”
“At least you got my title correct that time, Your Grace. You might want to get used to your new title as well.”
They had drawn the attention of every patron in the bar and adjoining pool deck and Lyla’s friends were snickering, the older of the two actually snorted and then laughed out loud. She cleared her throat and said, “I need another drink.”
“Allow me,” Collins said, and waved a hand to the waitress.
Mark didn’t release Lyla’s gaze and raised his eyebrows when he caught the tiniest hint of humor behind her fiery expression. He allowed a playful smirk to spread across his face and he could tell she was cringing trying to force herself not to answer his grin. Finally, she cracked and broke eye contact as she laughed into her hand, trying to cover her traitorous smile.
Not waiting for her to change her mind, Mark rose quickly from his chair and stepped around to her side of the table, holding out his hand in invitation. “Would you come for a walk with me? Just around the pool deck, in full view of your chaperones, of course.”
“My chaperones?” Lyla glanced at her two friends, both of whom were barely stifling laughter. Lyla took a deep breath and growled, then finally slipped her hand into his and allowed him to help her to her feet.
The momentum of standing led her right into Mark’s waiting arms, and he took the opportunity to wrap one arm around her waist, keeping her hand in his other. Not wanting to continue their conversation in front of all their friends, Mark backed away from the table, pulling her with him. She didn’t resist.
“Dang it, you smell really good,” she muttered. “Why do you smell so good?”
“Probably because I’m not drenched in pool water,” Mark said.
“The night is young,” Lyla said. “I could still push you in.”
“True, but then I wouldn’t smell nearly as good.”
“You’ve got a point.”
“My brother died,” Mark said suddenly, feeling the need to explain himself.
“Were you able to get home in time to say goodbye?” she asked quietly. He dropped his arm from her waist but continued to hold her hand as they began a leisurely stroll in the gardens beside the pool, out of earshot but within sight of their friends.
“Yes, I spent the night at his bedside.” Mark had to stop when his voice hitched. “I held his hand…” He didn’t have to finish that part of his sentence.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry I was rude, crass, brazen, and a presumptuous jerk. And for standing you up.”
“Well you had a valid reason for leaving the resort, but I’m curious to know if there is any excuse for your behavior the past twelve hours.”
“Yes, there is actually.” Mark turned, and pulled her other hand into his, looking down into her eyes. “My brother’s widow is trying to convince my father to name her five-year-old son as the next king.”
“He’d probably do a better job of running your country than most politicians in this world.”
“Valid observation,” he said. “But just the same, I’ve been a little out of sorts arguing with my family. I’m sorry if my grief, anger, and lack of a full night’s sleep—since I don’t know how long—has led me to say or do things I wouldn’t normally.”
“Like call up a woman you barely know, insult her repeatedly, and sit on an airplane for eight or nine hours so you can insult her some more and then take her for a stroll in the gardens behind your friend’s resort.”
“Exactly.” Mark nodded.
“What is it you’re hoping to accomplish?” Lyla asked.
“I’d like to make you my princess,” Mark said, then lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.
Lyla let out a little sigh that was almost a whimper. “Why me? You know nothing about me.”
“I know how good you feel in my arms.” Mark took a step closer and pulled her to him, their faces now inches apart. “I know I’ve thought of little else but you since the moment I saw you, even before you fell into the pool.”
“I haven’t been able to get you off my mind either,” she admitted, gazing up into his eyes.
“Would you mind very much if I kissed you?” Mark whispered, his face lowering closer and closer to hers. “If I ask really, really nicely?”
“What if I say no?” Lyla asked, biting her lower lip.
“You’ve said no to me quite a few times today.” Mark pulled her just a little closer and inched his face lower.
“I’m getting good at saying no,” she whispered.
“How about we make a deal.” Mark pulled back just slightly and cocked his head to the side. “When you kiss me, if you feel absolutely nothing, I’ll walk away and never bother you again.”
Mark leaned closer and kissed Lyla’s neck, just below her earlobe, then moved to the other side and kissed her there as well. She moaned softly and closed her eyes, leaning closer.
“But if you feel the way I think you’re going to feel,” Mark whispered, his lips close to hers again. “Then consider my proposal, and I will spend every night for the rest of our lives making you feel as good as you feel right now.”
Without waiting for any more invitation than that, Mark brought his lips to touch hers with feather light pressure, allowing her the choice to complete the kiss… or not.
Lyla’s hands reached up into Mark’s hair and she pulled him to her, kissing him with all the wild passion he knew she possessed inside.
He forgot, or ignored, all the people who were probably still watching them, and kissed her with his whole being, holding nothing back.
He’d never given himself to a woman before, but he suddenly realized how much he was going to love being married. He could understand how a man could be tempted to quench this passion before a proper wedding because he wanted every part of him to become one with every part of her.
His body was in physical pain and he felt tears prick the corners of his eyes as he stopped himself from kissing her further, and further. Oh my gosh. Mark didn’t want to cry in front of her, or any of the people watching them, but felt so dang vulnerable in that moment.
Mark closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to hers, breathing so heavy he was almost panting or hyperventilating. He didn’t trust himself to speak so he just held her there.
“Are you averse to flying to America?” Lyla whispered. “Because that’s where my dad is.”
“Yes!” Mark called into the sky. “I mean, no! No, I’m not averse to flying. Yes, I’m glad you’re going to introduce me to your father. My private jet is waiting at the airport. Would you like to take a limo over there? Or shall I order the helicopter to come pick us up?”
“Well, I can’t leave tonight,” Lyla said, placing her hand on his chest playfully. “But soon, okay? Within the next few days.”
“Okay, I can be patient.” He gulped. Sort of. I’ll try to be patient.
“Would you be willing to get married in America so my family and friends can all come?”
“Of course,” Mark said. “No problem. My parents could probably even come to the wedding. My father will want to arrange a meeting with your president while he’s there, but that can be done sometime after the wedding, while we’re on our honeymoon.”
“The… president? Of, like, the United States?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you live in another part of America? I always forget there are several continents that are all called America, right? Northern, Southern, Central? Is that right? Where do you live? I forgot to ask. My apologies.”
“No, I mean, yes, I live in the United States,” Lyla said. “In New York City, actually. That’s not too far from our Nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Your father should be able to get down there to meet with the—uh—president.”
“Wonderful,” Mark said. “It’s settled then. Would you like me to wait until your father offers his blessing first? Or would it be okay to give our audience an absolution by allowing me to lower myself to one knee and formally ask for your hand?”
“You are the strangest man I’ve ever met, Your Highness.” Lyla leaned her head back and laughed.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Mark picked up both her hands in his and kissed them gently then continued to hold them as he lowered himself to the ground and, ignoring the dew that soaked into the knee of his slacks, kissed her hands again and smiled up at her. “Lyla—oh crud, I have no idea what your last name is—will you do me the honor of becoming my wife and princess?”
“Yes! You silly man! Get up here and give me another kiss!”
Mark stood and lifted her into his arms, swinging her around as they both smiled and laughed and listened to the people in the bar clapping and cheering. He stopped spinning, rested her back on her feet and before kissing her again asked, “What is your last name?
“Donovan,” Lyla said. “For now.”
“Lyla, Princess of Madain Saleh,” Mark said reverently. “I cannot wait to marry you.”
“Kiss me once more, my prince,” Lyla teased. “Before I bid thee goodnight, lest we get ourselves into trouble.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” Mark said, playfully. “I’ve heard everyone in your country has a shot gun, and I’d like to meet your father without him holding one to my head.”
“You’re so funny, Marcos.” Lyla stopped and cocked her head to the side. “Am I allowed to call you Marcos?”
“My darling, you can call me anything you want,” Mark’s voice was husky, every emotion close to the surface.
“Okay… Marcos,” she said. “Are you going to kiss me now, or what?”
Mark drew his hands up her neck and cradled her face as Lyla closed her eyes, surrendering to one more sweet, soft kiss. He pulled away after just a few short seconds and they both opened their eyes, staring into one another’s souls.
“I look forward to falling in love with you, my princess.”
“Goodnight… my prince.” Lyla slipped from his arms and held his hand in hers until the last possible second as she backed away from him, leaving him standing alone in the garden as she glided back to her friends.
Mark stood there and watched as they gathered their purses and phones and beach towels and sweatshirts and other belongings and started toward the elevator to head back up to their suites.
Before entering the elevator, Lyla turned one more time and waved lightly to Mark. He sighed with cheesy, blissful happiness as she stepped into the elevator and disappeared.
“Marry you? Are you insane?” Lyla screeched into the phone.
“I need to produce an heir as quickly as possible, and you are the most logical woman for the role of queen,” Mark said.
“Logical? Produce an heir? You are insane!”
“No, wait, Lyla, let me explain,” Mark said, gathering courage. “I was intrigued by you from the moment you fell in that pool and then wrapped your arms around my shoulders. The water droplets clinging to your eyelashes, the way your hair became darker when it got wet. The way you challenged me on everything I said. I can’t wait to hold you in my arms again.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
“Did you hang up?”
“No, I’m still here.”
“Speaking of, are you still at the resort in Dubai? I’d love to come visit with you and we can plan our future together.”
“I’m still at the resort, but, Marcos, we don’t even love each other.”
“Love grows over time,” Mark reasoned.
“I feel like you’re just trying to hire me for sex,” Lyla said.
Mark scoffed. “Trust me, if I were just hiring you for sex, it would be a lot less expensive than a royal wedding.”
“How dare you!” The line went dead.
“She hung up on me?”
“You offended her in so many ways I can’t even count them all,” Collins told Mark.
“You weren’t supposed to be listening to my conversation,” Mark said.
“You pay me a large sum of money to stand beside you through all your waking hours,” Collins said. “It is my job to listen to your conversations.”
“You will not stand outside my door once I’m married,” Mark insisted, pointing at Collins with mock anger.
“Ugh.” Collins noticeably shuddered. “I’ll be on the opposite side of the palace, pretending I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Good, because just the thought of you listening gives me the creeps.”
“How about if we hop on a jet and go find your princess, apologize to her profusely, convince her to marry you and bring her home to your palace,” Collins suggested. “Then I can have a night off once in a while.”
“You’ll have every night off if I have any say in the matter.”
“You won’t have any say in the matter if you don’t convince her to marry you, so let’s go.”
“Fire up the private jet, my eavesdropping adviser.”
“Father, the Crown should not be contested,” Mark insisted. “The title is mine in the absence of my elder brother.”
“Not if he has an heir,” Tayma argued. “My son is the rightful Crown.”
“Omar is five years old,” Mark said. “He is not of age and could not rule if the King were to die.”
“Planning my demise so soon, my youngest son?” King Sayid chuckled.
“You know that’s not what I meant, Father. Please, hear my reasoning.”
“I hear you, Marcos,” Sayid said. “My biggest concern with you is that you’ll never marry and produce an heir of your own. You are twenty-three already and haven’t even considered taking a bride.”
“But Father, I have considered marriage.” Mark jumped on this chance. “I met a woman and I’m quite enthralled with her. I would very much like to marry her.” He didn’t point out that he’d met Lyla four days ago and didn’t even know her last name or where she lived or if she had any royal bloodline.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tayma said, sticking her nose in the air. “Produce an heir and then we’ll talk.”
“You are not in charge, Princess.” Mark sneered at her.
“That would be Your Highness, thank you very much.” Tayma crossed her arms and lifted her chin higher.
“I outrank you by blood and status, Tayma.” Mark emphasized her given name to purposely cut her down a notch. “I’ll call you whatever I darn well please.”
“Children, would you please stop fighting,” Queen Salaina cut into the conversation.
“Sorry, Your Grace,” both Mark and Tayma said, then lowered their gazes. The only person above the queen was the king and even Sayid often took direction from his wife. She didn’t speak often, but when she did her words were powerful.
Mark took advantage of this diversion and knelt at his mother’s feet, pleading to her maternal nature. “Your Grace, what is your opinion on the matter of naming the Crown?”
“I’m not allowed to have an opinion, son.” She held out her hand for him to grasp, in a cross between loyal subject and devoted son.
“Of course, you are, Mother.” Mark glanced toward the king, wondering if he’d be reprimanded for speaking to the queen so informally. Seeing no objection in Sayid’s eyes, Mark took his plea to a higher level of informality. “Father values your council.”
“I want to hear more about this future bride of yours,” Salaina cleverly changed the subject. “What’s she like? How has she captured the heart of my young prince? She clearly has; I can see it in your eyes.”
“She’s beautiful, Mother.” Mark sighed and settled on the top marble step leading up to the stand where the thrones sat at the highest point in the room. “But she doesn’t like to be told that she’s beautiful. She liked it when I called her feisty.”
“Oh, you’ve got it bad, my son.” Salaina chuckled.
“Oh, brother, this is ridiculous,” Tayma grumbled. “I’m outta here. I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Princess of Tayma,” Sayid commanded. “You have not been dismissed.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty.” Tayma curtsied and lowered her gaze.
“I have not made any decisions,” Sayid said. “I will take both of your testimonies into consideration and consult my advisors. We are in uncharted territory and the choice I make could have generational implications. I will not take my responsibility lightly.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Tayma said softly.
“You are dismissed.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Tayma hurried out of the throne room and the tension seemed to lift from Mark’s shoulders.
“As I was saying, her name is Lyla and she has long, blond hair and crystal blue eyes and she fell for me quite literally when I rescued her from drowning.”
“Where is she from? What is her lineage?” his mother asked.
“I’m pretty sure she’s not a princess, if that’s what you’re asking.” Mark’s eyes crossed with unfocused dreaming and he laughed to himself. “Although she kind of liked when I called her my princess.”
“How about this, Mother? I’ll send her a text to ask if she can provide her lineage and we’ll discuss her some more at dinner.”
“You are dismissed, my son.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Mark bowed to his mother and then turned to the king with expectant eyes. “Your Majesty?”
“You’re dismissed, son.”
“Thank you, Father.” Mark bowed to this man who could reprimand him for the casual manner in which he’d been addressed multiple times today. Mark stood and hurried from the room, pulling his cell phone from his pocket as he did.
My parents want to know everything about you. Do you have time to talk?
Mark sent the text and looked forward to hearing Lyla’s voice.
There was no discussion of the contested crown during the three days of preparation for the funeral. Jared’s widow, the Princess of Tayma, faked just enough tears to make her grief believable to anyone who didn’t know her. She clutched Omar as if he was her most treasured possession even as Omar cried for his nanny. She also stayed close to the king’s side. Mark narrowed his eyes, wondering what she was up to.
The funeral procession was formal and attended by most people in the kingdom. Some in attendance seemed genuinely grieved by the loss of their prince, and Mark knew Jared had been beloved by his subjects. He really had been a good Crown and would have made a great king.
Some who attended the funeral seemed there out of curiosity or reveling in the pageantry of seeing the royal family convened outside the palace walls, which was rare. Mark couldn’t remember the last time they’d ever been out together.
His father, King Sayid of Madain Saleh led the procession with Mark on his right and Tayma carrying little Omar to the King’s left. His mother, Queen Salaina walked a few paces behind her husband. That was one tradition Mark intended to put to rest as soon as he was in charge. His queen would walk beside him, as an equal.
When the internment had been spoken, and the family began the procession back to the palace, Mark noticed one young lady break away from the crowd and kneel as Jared’s gravesite, sobbing into her hands. No one else seemed to notice and Mark casually left the procession and returned to stand beside her.
Mark stood close enough that the woman was able to lean her head against his leg for support. He reached down and patted her on the head, then spoke words she probably wouldn’t hear from anyone else, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Jared will be missed,” she sobbed, probably not realizing she was talking to his brother. No woman in the kingdom would be so bold as to call the crown prince by his first name unless she had a very familial relationship with him. Even then, never in the presence of royalty.
“By all who knew him,” Mark agreed, then patted her on the head again and turned to walk away. He paused for one more acknowledgement. “Take all the time you need.”
At that, the young lady, probably in her early twenties, gasped and looked up at him, horror crossing her face at the bold way in which she’d spoken to the prince. “Your Highness?”
“I will forget we had this conversation,” Mark stated.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” She lowered her gaze and twisted her hands in her lap, wringing a white handkerchief over and over.
Mark started to leave again but stopped and took a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever the answer might be. “Are there any other… family members I should know about?”
“No, Your Highness, we were careful.”
“I don’t need to hear details,” Mark halted her sternly. “Please just let my brother’s memory rest in peace.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” she whimpered.
This time Mark didn’t hesitate but walked briskly away from the woman and vowed never to do the things his brother had done.
“My prince, I’m here, brother.” Marcos hurried to Jared’s bedside and grasped his hand. Between the helicopter and private jet, he’d managed to make it home to Madain Saleh in just over nine hours.
“Marcos,” Jared choked out in a raspy voice. “We don’t have much time.”
“I’m here now. I’ll sit with you through the night.”
“Hear my words,” Jared demanded in a much stronger voice than Marcos would have thought possible considering his obvious pain.
“Forgive me, my prince.” Marcos lowered his eyes obediently to the man who was slated to be his king.
“No, you forgive me,” Jared pleaded. “I have made some poor choices, and I need you to forgive me so that you can lead my people.”
“I forgive you, my prince,” Marcos said. “What would you have me do?” Lead his people? Is that really what he’d said? Marcos lifted his eyes and met his brother’s gaze.
“My wife is not fit to raise the future king,” Jared said. Marcos agreed but didn’t vocalize his concern. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I understand.” Marcos nodded with increasing confidence. “I will lead our people as best I can.”
“I fear you may need to flee this land,” Jared said. “My wife will fight you on my decision.”
“How am I to lead if I flee the country?” Marcos was confused.
“As long as father is alive, you won’t be needed here.”
“Good point,” Marcos said.
“You need to get married,” Jared insisted, cringing in pain. “The Crown needs a father and a mother to raise him.”
“I’m starting to understand the desire to settle down.” Marcos chuckled, thinking of the spunky blonde who’d already texted him to offer her condolences. “I think I can accommodate you on that request.”
“Promise me one more thing.” Jared gripped Marcos’s hand with more strength than he’d thought possible.
“Anything, my prince,” Marcos promised.
“Raise him as your own,” Jared said.
“You want me to raise your son?”
“Your future king…” Jared’s weak voice trailed off.
Marcos froze as realization entered his heart. Jared wasn’t asking him to assume the role as Crown; he was asking Marcos to raise the future Crown, his five-year-old son, Omar.
“No,” Marcos whispered, not sure his brother could hear him anymore. “He’s not of age. When you die, whether that be tonight, or ten years from now, unless your son is of age, I inherit the title of Crown. I will help raise him, but not as my future king.”
Jared never responded with words or even a twitch of a muscle to indicate he’d heard his younger brother’s declaration. His breathing grew more and more labored as the night wore on.
Clutching his older brother’s hand, Marcos kept vigil through the long night and by the time the sun rose, Jared no longer had a heartbeat.
Marcos pried his hand from within Jared’s clutch and rose from his chair to inform the king that his oldest son had died.