Evenings in Madain Saleh were mornings in America. The senator would be at his office by now. The king’s personal secretary placed the phone call on a secure diplomatic line. She reached one of his staffers.
“Senator Alejandro Cohen’s office, this is Jake. How may I help you?”
“His Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh is holding to speak with the senator,” Emra said in thickly accented English.
“One moment please,” Jake said, and the line was placed on hold. Annoying elevator music filled the king’s office through the speaker phone.
“This is Senator Cohen,” a Latin American accented voice rang through the line. “How may I help you, Your Highness?”
“Please hold for His Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Emra said again and Mark picked up the receiver creating the illusion that he’d been on another line while simultaneously providing a more private conversation.
“Good evening, Senator Cohen,” Mark said with confidence. “Or should I say, ‘Good morning?’”
“Depends on what part of the world you’re in, I suppose.” Alejandro chuckled.
“I am in the Middle East where I’m baking and perpetually thirsty,” Mark said. “And you are in America, where my future queen is completing her senior year of high school and nearing the age at which I can request her hand in marriage.”
“I’d assume you were over-confident had I not witnessed my daughter pouring over wedding magazines the past few weeks.”
“Spare no expense,” Mark said. “I recently inherited just over a billion dollars and intend to lavish the beautiful and feisty Hazel Marie Cohen with a wedding fit for a princess.”
“Complete with a coronation, I understand,” Alejandro said.
“If you have not called to ask for her hand, why have you called?”
“I have a challenge I hope you can help remedy,” Mark said. “Your father dragged my sweet Hazel from my palace before she had the opportunity to give me her phone number.”
“Can’t you just stalk her on social media?” the senator asked.
“I would never disrespect her, or you, in such a manner. I felt this was a good excuse to make your acquaintance.”
“I don’t normally give my daughter’s personal information out to strange guys in the Middle East. But seeing as how you’re the grandson of my father’s oldest and best friend, and my daughter seems to be convinced you’re planning to sweep her off her feet, I might be able to make an exception.”
“I appreciate that, Senator,” Mark said.
“Do you a pen ready, Your Highness?”
“In my hand…”
In a symbolic move that could have gotten him killed, Mark stood to the right of King Sayid as he led the procession from the palace to the royal family’s mausoleum near the edge of the city center. Prince Omar walked to the King’s left, the meaning of which was not lost on anyone. Even Eli seemed upset by the situation, but Mark held his head high and didn’t dare go against what his king asked of him.
The funeral procession was formal and attended by most people in the kingdom, who seemed there out of curiosity or reveling in the pageantry rather than grief for a prince none of them had seen in forty years. Many of the people in the kingdom had never met Prince Marcos.
There was no eulogy as there had been in Mexico. The internment was solemn and formal. The only noise was Queen Salaina crying in the arms of her grandson, Prince Omar, who also was sobbing. Mark had spent his tears already and stood beside the king, who seemed to be shaking in an attempt to hold his emotions in check.
Mark had the desire to reach out a hand and comfort his great-grandfather but knew that would be his undoing. If the king was going to mourn, he’d want to do that in private.
They slid the ornate casket in which Prince Marcos would forever rest deep into a tomb that had been carved from rock. The heavy stone placed in front of the tomb already bore his name and Mark realized the stone to his left bore the name of his brother, Prince Jared Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.
“No man should have to bury two sons,” King Sayid whispered. Mark was the only person close enough to hear.
“No, Your Majesty, they should not,” Mark whispered just as softly. “I’m truly sorry for your loss.”
“For yours as well, my son.”
Mark showed no reaction to the symbolic way his great-grandfather had called him his son. He was glad no one else had heard the acknowledgement. He had enough of a target on his head. Although no one in the kingdom had openly added the word Crown to his title, Mark sensed they all knew the king’s intention and they were furious.
“Tell me your plans,” the king whispered again, taking advantage of their close proximity without advisors standing at their shoulders.
“I wish to finish my education, Your Majesty.” Mark spoke so softly he wasn’t sure he’d be heard. “And prepare myself to be of service in whatever way I am needed.”
“Thank you for your willingness to serve.”
“Thank you for putting your faith and trust in me.” Mark finally felt a prick of emotion tear at his words and he ended his statement. They seemed to have a collective moment of silence and Mark felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He had a sudden desire to return to America and find his queen.
Mark almost laughed out loud when he realized he still didn’t have Hazel’s phone number or know the name of the town where she lived or the school she attended.
He was going to have to take matters into his own hands.
“I thought you’d never return,” a sultry young voice startled Mark from the shadows near the locked door to his suite. The Princess of Nimrah stepped into the light of the hallway wearing a much more casual, and revealing, dress than the night before. “I’ve been waiting for-ev-er.”
She sounded like such a little girl. Then Mark realized she was a little girl. He was afraid to open his door for fear she’d try to come into his suite and he’d never get her back out. Thankfully, Alex leaned against the doorframe, the key to the suite still concealed within the pocket of his slacks.
“Why, Princess, what a pleasure to see you,” Mark said, maintaining a formal stance and trying to hold a neutral face so as not to convey his annoyance at having her interrupt his day. “To what do we owe the honor?”
“I was so worried about you last night when you didn’t come back to the dance.” Nimrah came closer and placed her hand on his chest.
Mark took an involuntary step back. “I had a headache.”
“Are you feeling better now?” She stalked forward again and seemed to stick out her chest.
If Mark chose to, he’d be able to look down her shirt. He turned his head to the side and gave Alex his best ‘help me!’ look but Alex laughed. He actually laughed! That jerk!
“Princess, look, we can’t… I mean, we shouldn’t get involved when you’re so young, and I haven’t finished school, and, and… I’m going back to America in a day or two.”
“Well, at least we have tonight,” she said, lifting onto her toes and whispering near his ear. “If you can ditch your bodyguard.”
“I’m not ditching my body—eh, my advisor,” Mark said. “He is the only person staying with me tonight.” Mark backed up another step and nearly tripped. Alex was close enough that he practically caught Mark when he fell.
“Ohhhhh…” Nimrah said with a gleam in her eye. “So that’s how it is with you two. Gotcha.” She winked at them conspiratorially.
“No, that’s not what he meant,” Alex said, pushing Mark to a standing position.
“It’s okay, Alex,” Mark said, taking Alex’s hand. “She’ll keep our secret. Won’t you, princess?”
Alex tried to pull his hand away, but Mark held it firmly, trying to convey the message that this charade would free him from the advances of the beautiful temptress who had been undressing Mark with her eyes.
“Of course, I’ll keep your secret,” she said without backing down. She put a hand on each of their arms. “We could still have some fun, ya know, the three of us.”
“No!” Mark cried out, fumbling in Alex’s pocket for the key to his suite. He turned and managed to unlock the door, pushing it open just far enough to slip through the opening, pulling Alex with him and pushing the heavy door closed before Nimrah could follow. He locked the door and backed away as if she could reach right through the wood and grasp hold of him again.
“Dang, what the heck, man?”
“I had to get away from her,” Mark hissed, hurrying away from the door and waving Alex into the bathroom. “She’s probably listening through the door right now!”
“So instead of saying, ‘Hey, princess, I’m not interested,’ or ‘I have a girlfriend,’ you tell her you’re gay?”
“And she’s so evil, she still came after me!” Mark said, closing the bathroom door so that there were now two doors in between the temptress and their conversation. “That says something about a person.”
“What’s your point?” Alex crossed his arms.
“Don’t you get it?” Mark pointed in the direction of the hallway. “That is who is running my country.”
“Your great-grandfather is still in charge,” Alex said.
“For now,” Mark said. “Mark my words; that woman will destroy my kingdom if she gets any more power.”
“You seriously care that much about this tiny piece of arid land in the middle of flippin’ nowhere enough that you’re getting this emotional about a girl hitting on you? You’ve been here a whopping two days. You can’t possibly love this country that much in such a short period of time.”
“I have loved this country my whole life,” Mark said, lifting his chin. “I have dreamed about this land for as long as I can remember. I’ve studied the geography, the topography, the people, the royal family, the natural resources, the history that dates back fifteen-hundred years. The sand that blows across the desert and the water that springs forth from the artesian well are part of my blood. I love Mada’in Saleh.” Mark’s breathing was heavy after pouring his heart out and saying things he’s wanted to say for years.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me this, man?”
“I didn’t think you’d understand.” Mark shuffled his foot and kicked lightly at the clawfoot tub. “I don’t think anyone understands.”
“I think your great-grandfather understands,” Alex said softly.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Hey, you should probably ask him to show you the artesian well,” Alex said. “You promised your grandpa.”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” Mark said. “We’ll ask him about that at lunch.”
“Good, I’m starving.” Alex opened the door to the bathroom.
“You don’t think she’s still waiting outside our door, do you?” Mark asked in a panicked voice.
“I don’t care if she is, I am not holding your hand again,” Alex said. He confidently strode to the door and peeked outside. “You coming Your Highness? Let’s go eat some food that may or not be poisoned to kill us, buy some linen robes that I’ll never wear, drink some water that bubbles up from the desert, and hope no princesses follow us home. I promise to walk just slightly behind you and not speak out of turn again.”
“Very funny,” Mark grumbled but realized there was some merit to each statement Alex had made.
“Tell me more about these cool linen robes you all seem to wear around here.” Mark changed the subject and stepped closer to his cousin, lifting the unique fabric between his fingers. “Where can I get some of these?”
“We could take you into the city center and check out some of the vendors there, if you’d like,” Eli said, a clear message of appreciation for getting him out of that uncomfortable conversation with their great-grandfather. “That, or you could just raid my closet.”
Prince Eli was visibly upset that they’d barged into his office while he was having a private moment with his girlfriend and then stood there while the king had insulted him and discounted his importance in the family. Mark felt a need to protect his cousin.
“I’d like to buy some that we could take back with us,” Mark said, then glanced at Alex. “We’d be styling on campus at our university.”
“Heck no! I’m not wearing one of those at college,” Alex said, shaking his head adamantly. Then he seemed to realize to casual way he was discussing clothing choices and straightened to his full height, lifting his chin. “I mean, unless you require that of me, Your Highness.”
“Well,” King Sayid said with a chuckle. “I’m going to rest awhile before the noon meal. I’ll leave you young people to plan an afternoon shopping trip.”
“We’ll see you at lunch, Your Majesty.” Mark said. He and Eli both bowed with respect to their elder, but Alex and Savannah seemed to know instinctively that it was not required of them to bow when the king left the room, like it was for the princes.
After the king left Eli’s office, Alex turned toward the other three college-age kids. “I am so sorry. I don’t know what got into me. I’m still not used to playing this role.”
“You’re fine, Alex, relax.” Mark laid a hand on his shoulder.
Eli strode over and closed the door to his office. “There, now you can be as casual as you want. It’s just us young people, as grandfather called us.”
“Where do you go to school, Your Highness?” Savannah returned to the sofa where she’d been sitting with Eli and lounged casually, slipping her feet from her sandals and pulling her legs up onto the sofa.
“North Carolina State University,” Mark said. He and Alex sat beside one another and Eli sat next to Savannah, tucking her feet up under his legs as if he needed to keep them warm. “You?”
“Ariel University, Department of Molecular Biology, in Jerusalem,” Savannah said flippantly as if that she knew that was impressive.
“Molecular biology? Dang,” Mark said. “You must be super smart.”
“She is,” Eli said, pulling her hand to his lips for a kiss. He certainly didn’t treat her like the daughter of one of his household staff. She was his equal. This was a nice change from the snobbery of the other members of the royal family.
“So, um, Alex, are you related to the Cohen family who used to own a whole bunch of businesses in Jerusalem?” Savannah asked. “The library where I go to college was named by their foundation because they provided the funding.”
“Yeah, Nicholas Cohen is my grandfather,” Alex said, sitting up a little straighter. Considering he’d only known about his grandfather a few days he was taking on the name with pride. He’d never known his mother’s side of his family and this was almost like finding out you were the son of a rock star… or in this case a billionaire.
“And what are you studying in college?” Savannah asked.
“I’m learning how to become the advisor to a cocky prince who thinks the world revolves around him,” Alex said with a straight face. Mark punched him in the arm. “Kidding! Kidding. Geesh. I’m pre-law but considering public administration.”
“Are you in college, Eli?” Mark cringed when he realized he’d just used the prince’s nickname rather than addressing his title.
“No, I’m not… Mark.” Eli’s sarcasm was not lost on him. “You heard the king. My bloodline is of little consequence.”
“Well, aside from not believing that for a second—” Mark coughed playfully— “If marrying outside of royal blood means you get to have a smart and beautiful woman such as the one sitting at your side, I’d be thankful you aren’t required to marry a snobby princess at the ripe old age of sixteen.”
“Speaking of snobby princesses,” Eli said. “How are you doing with avoiding my lovely niece?”
“I have yet to see her since I handed her off to her father last night and fled to my suite with a migraine.”
“She’ll find you eventually,” Eli said. “This palace isn’t as big as it looks. I’m sure she knows where your suite is located. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s waiting in your room right now, lounging on your king-sized bed and hoping you’ll make her your queen.”
Alex pulled the key to their suite from his pocket and held it up on a keyring. “I’m one step ahead of you.”
“Trust me,” Mark said. “She won’t sink her claws into me no matter how hard she tries.” Mark gulped and pulled into his mind the feisty and adorable girl he loved, Hazel Marie Cohen.
The Princess of Tayma was off-limits for more reasons than Mark could count, and he vowed to maintain arm’s length from the sultry temptress no matter the cost.
“Brilliant idea calling the senator,” Mark mumbled under his breath. “I should have thought of that the minute Hazel left Puerto Aventuras without giving me her phone number.”
“I was kind of bluffing to get you out of that uncomfortable conversation,” Alex said, maintaining his gait and staying shoulder to shoulder with Mark. “I didn’t think you’d take my suggestion literally.”
“She promised she’d never give me her phone number,” Mark mused. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask her father for her phone number.”
“And how do you propose to get through to the senator? They have staffers to answer their phones. You’re not going to just be able to call him up and say, ‘Hey, Alejandro, can I get your daughter’s phone number?’”
Mark stopped and turned to Alex. “Maybe not as Mark Sayid. But what if Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh was calling from King Sayid’s office?”
Turning back the way they’d come, Mark was thankful to see the king strolling toward them at the leisurely pace of an eighty-one year old man. His patient smile told Mark that he’d expected they’d stop to wait for him eventually.
“Your Majesty, would it be possible to use a secure diplomatic line for our teleconference with Senator Cohen in Washington?”
“Senator Cohen?” The king raised his eyebrows before turning to Alex. “No doubt related?”
“He is my uncle, Your Majesty,” Alex said, not providing any further details about their intended business.
“I can see how familial relationships with United States legislators could come in handy.” Sayid confidently strode ahead toward his office, Mark and Alex falling in at his right side.
“Your assistance is greatly appreciated, Your Majesty,” Mark said. While walking he used his cell phone to pull up the website for the United States Senate and scrolled to find the office phone number for Senator Alejandro Cohen.
“Your Highness,” Alex said in a hushed tone. “It’s four o’clock in the morning in D.C. Perhaps we should wait a few hours.”
“See, now that is why I keep you around as my advisor.” Mark stopped and put a hand on Alex’s shoulder. “You always think of these things ahead of me.”
“Yes, all four days of my service to you have been full of life-saving advice.” Alex chuckled.
“Particularly the case of water bottles,” Mark pointed out.
“The two of you are quite comical when you let your guard down,” King Sayid said, not missing his stride.
“I apologize if our banter is offending you, Your Majesty.” Mark hurried to catch up.
“Not at all, Your Highness,” the king said. “Your positive energy is a refreshing change. Come, let me introduce you to my personal secretary and she will help you make that call when the time is right.”
After a brief conversation with Marri, the king’s secretary, Sayid led Mark and Alex in the direction of Eli’s office.
In similar fashion to how he’d barged in on Omar and Jared, the king swept open the door, entering Eli’s office unannounced.
Eli jumped to attention, almost dropping the young lady he had sitting on his lap. He caught her before she toppled over and steadied both her and himself while trying to mask a sheepish expression.
“Your Majesty, we uh, I mean, we weren’t doing anything inappropriate. I realize how this must look.”
“Your Highness, you are an adult,” Sayid said with a wave of his hand. “What you do with the captain’s daughter is none of my concern. Welcome home from university, young Savannah.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Savannah bowed her head respectfully and kept her eyes averted.
“She is not just the captain’s daughter,” Eli insisted in an almost panicked tone. “I would never take liberties with your captain’s daughter.”
“I would hope you wouldn’t take liberties with any girl, Your Highness,” Savannah hissed under her breath.
“You know I wouldn’t,” Eli grumbled just as low.
“Six months is a long time to wait while I was gone.”
“I’ve waited for you for twenty-three years,” Eli said. “I think I can handle waiting a few more months.”
King Sayid interrupted the lovers’ quarrel, turning to Mark and Alex with a wide smile. “Savannah’s father is captain of my royal guard. The finest man I have in my employ.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Savannah responded. “He enjoys working for you.”
“Savannah, may I introduce you to my cousin, Prince Marcos, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.” Eli placed his hand on Savannah’s lower back, guiding her toward Mark and Alex. “Savannah and I have been friends since we were young children, playing together in the nursery. Rather than my mother care for me herself, she took me to play with the house staff’s children. Thankfully.” Eli averted his eyes and glanced sidelong at the dark-haired beauty with copper skin and strangely mysterious eyes.
“These two have been playing house since they were children, and someday soon we’ll watch them raise their own children,” Sayid said.
“You wouldn’t—” Eli gulped— “Be averse to me choosing a wife who is not of royal blood?”
“You are not the crown prince,” the king said dismissively. “Your bloodline is of little consequence.”
Mark raised his eyebrows at Alex, considering this twist in conversation. They had endured quite an interesting day full of drama in this royal household.
At least Eli seemed to have some happiness in his life, but at what price? He was brushed aside by his family as if unimportant. Mark wondered if the best gift he could give Eli was a one-way ticket to Cancun for their honeymoon and get him out of this kingdom for good.
Except someone had to stick around and maintain some level of sanity or their kingdom was doomed.
After leaving Prince Omar’s office, Mark and Alex continued down a long hallway, hurrying to catch up to King Sayid.
“Omar is a good boy,” Sayid said. “Now, his son, Jared. He has a dark heart.”
“He was kind enough to rescue me from the Princess of Nimrah last night,” Mark said. “For that I’m thankful.”
King Sayid bent over laughing and Mark glanced at Alex. They both chuckled nervously while waiting for the king to compose himself. He straightened to his full height and cleared his throat. “I must say, that was a cleverly-played escape strategy.”
“Thank you?” Mark had just wanted to get medicine for his headache and didn’t want her following him to his suite.
“That girl will bring this kingdom to its knees if we’re not careful,” Sayid said, continuing down the hall. “You will do well to avoid her.”
“I’ll do my best,” Mark promised.
As he’d done when entering Omar’s office, the king didn’t bother knocking when they reached the door to Jared’s office.
“Prince Marcos!” Prince Jared called out as if they were old friends. He ignored his great-grandfather, snubbing the king, and quickly made his way toward the door. Jared wrapped his arm around Mark’s shoulder, sliding between Mark and Alex, effectively separating him from his advisor. “So good of you to come visit.”
A thrill of warning crept up Mark’s spine, but he allowed himself to be led into Jared’s office, which was far less business-like than that of his father and even more lavish and extravagant than that of his great-grandfather, the king.
Mark sensed Alex had followed close behind, not allowing anyone to come between himself and his prince. For that Mark was thankful.
“How long are you visiting?” Jared asked. “The Princess of Linah, and our daughter the Princess of Nimrah were hoping to have you join us for our evening meal.”
“I look forward to becoming better acquainted with your princesses,” Mark said, diverting the conversation away from the topic of the length of his stay, and not committing himself to joining them for a meal. “I dare say, I have not yet decided how to spend my evening. Let’s not commit to anything for now.”
“Could I offer you a drink?” the prince asked, stepping over to a countertop that was nearly concealed withing the ornate walls of his office. From the smell of Jared’s breath, Mark suspected he’d already partaken of whatever amber-colored liquid filled the crystal decanter. Mark noted the time that it was not yet eleven o’clock in the morning.
“Thank you, but I don’t usually drink alcohol.” Mark slipped usually into the sentence refraining from offering the full truth, which is that he had never tasted alcohol in his life.
Prince Jared proceeded to pour himself a glass, and then a second, holding that one out in the direction of the king. “Your Majesty?”
“My dear grandson, when have you known me to drink scotch before the noon meal?”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.” Jared tilted back the first glass then set it on the counter and took the second glass with him as he sauntered over to a small grouping of sofas similar to those in the king’s office. “Join me, gentlemen.”
“We’ll only stay a few moments,” King Sayid said, walking over to sit on the chair closest to his great-grandson, leaving the sofa across from Jared empty for Mark and Alex. “We wouldn’t want to interrupt whatever work you were engaged in.”
“Eh, I was mostly catching up on some reading,” Jared said. There wasn’t a book or newspaper or magazine anywhere to be seen, although a tablet rested on the prince’s desk. “You know you’re welcome anytime.”
“Seeing as how this is my home, and I am still the king, I would expect nothing less than an open door,” Sayid said through clenched teeth.
“Prince Marcos—” Jared ignored his great-grandfather’s warning and directed his attention toward Mark. “Were you aware that my daughter, the Princess of Nimrah, will be of a marrying age within the year? I noticed you were quite taken with her at dinner and held her in your arms on the dancefloor before you disappeared.”
“I had quite a throbbing headache,” Mark said, avoiding the specific direction Jared was steering the conversation. “Sleeping on the jet, and then all the pageantry of the reception and meeting the royal family took a toll on my body.”
“I trust that you slept well last night?”
“I did, thank you. My grandfather’s suite has been well-maintained in his absence.”
“I never knew him.” Jared sighed with a creased brow. “It’s unfortunate that the Princess of Tayma had unkind words with my uncle and he chose to abandon our kingdom.”
Mark cocked his head at Jared’s apparent disapproval of his own grandmother, then realized Jared had glanced sidelong at the king as if his true enemy was his great-grandfather, who had taken his grandfather’s widow as his second wife.
The king merely drew a long sigh and shook his head at Mark as if to encourage him not to fall into Jared’s trap.
“Forgive my boldness, Your Majesty,” Mark said, realizing he was missing a bit of information he’d never thought to ask. “You have an interesting family dynamic here in our kingdom. It is not a common practice for a man to have more than one wife in the country where I was raised. Is that something I should expect as the norm here?”
“I am the king,” Sayid said, sitting up straight and lifting his chin. “If I desire to increase my… family, I can so choose.”
“Rightfully,” Mark said with a nod, choosing to stoke the king’s ego rather than question him further. “And were you and the princess able to have more children?”
“Unfortunately, we were never able to conceive.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Jared mumbled under his breath. “If legends are correct.”
“Which is none of your business, grandson.” Although Sayid chastised Jared, there was a subtle gleam in his eye as if there was some truth to his accusation. “But, yes, we had a… passionate relationship.”
“I have yet to marry,” Mark said, glancing at Jared. “Sounds like I have something to look forward to.” Mark felt his cheeks warm remembering the feeling of having Hazel in his arms and the desire to carry her to their marriage bed. He was again thankful he’d chosen to wait and share that experience with his one and only wife once they took that next step.
“Your Highness,” Alex stage whispered to Mark. “It is my duty to remind you that you’re scheduled to have a teleconference with the senator in D.C. this afternoon. Perhaps it is time for us to retire to your suite for an hour or two.” Alex made it a point to glance at his watch.
“Ah yes, thank you for the reminder.” Mark rose from the sofa and Alex quickly joined him. The king also stood but Jared remained in a lounged position, taking another sip of his scotch.
“Good of you to come,” Jared said. “Drop by anytime. I’ll be sure to have the princess available this afternoon should you choose to dine with us.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Mark said. “I’ll take that into consideration.”
Mark didn’t wait for the king to lead him from the room, merely strode with confidence into the hallway, Alex at his side. His advisor was nearly shoulder to shoulder, a complete taboo in this kingdom. But Mark was tired of the backward traditions of Madain Saleh and vowed to leave shortly after the funeral the following day. When he was in charge, there would be some new rules around here.
“Your Majesty?” Mark stepped one foot into his great-grandfather’s office, marveling at the grandeur. 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.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid looked up from where he sat at his desk, all casualness from the night before gone from his tone. “And Master Alexander, good of you to come.”
Mark and Alex walked tentatively into the ostentatious room; heads held high with all the confidence their twenty-year-old selves could drag from the corners of their apprehensive hearts. Their clothes were more casual than the previous evening when they’d been welcomed into the grand reception. They’d assumed correctly that crowns and business suits were not required for less-formal introductions around the royal family and parliament.
“Sit for a moment, won’t you?” Sayid raised his hand to indicate a small grouping of leather sofas. The boys did as the king had suggested, perching forward with attention. The king rose from his chair and walked around the desk to join them on the sofas. “Alexander, tell me about yourself.”
Alex cleared his throat, glancing at Mark for direction. “Well, I’ve been friends with Prince Marcos since we were quite young and we’re now college roommates.”
“Yes, yes—” Sayid said with a dismissive wave. “Tell me how you have the Cohen name.”
“Uh, my mother was Nicholas Cohen’s daughter,” Alex said, lifting his chin with renewed confidence.
“Was?” the king raised his eyebrows.
“She passed away when I was very young.”
“I knew your grandfather well,” Sayid said with only a small degree of pity for the loss of Alex’s mom.
“You did?” Alex leaned forward with youthful interest. “What was he like back then?”
“He and my son were wallflowers lacking confidence and stuck in the shadows behind strong older brothers.”
“What?” Alex chuckled. “That doesn’t sound like my grandfather at all.”
“Nor mine,” Mark added suspiciously.
“Ah, they gained confidence as adults and were forced to grow up real fast after the… uh… alleged incident when Nick killed a man defending his brother.”
“So, it’s true?” Mark glanced at Alex and both boys raised their eyebrows. “He really killed a man?”
“Only a few people are still alive to tell that tale,” Sayid said. “You’ll have to ask your grandfather directly for the whole story. I will say this, your grandfather, and his father, were some of the shrewdest businessmen I’ve ever seen. They were billionaires even before they sold off their land shares in the Middle East and bought up half of Dubai and then rescued every failing business on the Yucatan Peninsula.”
“You’ve kept up with their dealings overseas?” Mark asked, intrigued.
“I am the head of state and ruler of a Middle Eastern sovereign nation,” the king said with more confidence than Mark had seen, even while the king had sat on his throne the previous evening. “It is my job to know what’s going on in the world, especially with a family as powerful as the Cohens, and in such close relations with my only remaining son…” His voice trailed off with emotion.
“Did you know… about me?” Mark asked.
“Benjamin’s son? Of course. I watched you grow up in pictures. Your father and mother did a fine job of reaching out to me unbeknownst to your grandfather.”
“They did? Wow. I had no idea.”
“Did I mention you look very much like your grandfather at his age?”
“Yes, you told me that last night.” Mark coughed lightly, embarrassed at both of their show of emotions.
“Let’s go meet the other princes,” Sayid suggested, standing from the leather sofa. Alex and Mark quickly followed the king’s lead and stood at attention. “Come, we will begin with Omar. He’s getting up there in years, you know.”
Mark chuckled at the king referring to his grandson as being old. “He’s about sixty-five, right?” He and Alex followed a few steps behind Sayid as his linen robes billowed with each haughty movement. Mark decided he was going to need to get himself some of these cool clothing articles so popular among his family, and many others he’d seen since arriving in this arid region.
Apparently, there was more to them than just chic elegance. Linen was quite literally cooling to the body underneath, which Mark and Alex could use right about then. Slacks and Polo shirts weren’t practical in Madain Saleh.
They strode down the hall to another office where the king entered without invitation to find his grandson, Prince Omar leaning over a table laden with maps, printed financial sheets and engineering charts. His advisor, Ahmed glanced up from where he was pointing something out to his prince, finished his sentence, and then both men stood at attention.
“Your Majesty,” Omar said, bowing regally. “To what do we owe the honor?”
“I’m taking your cousin on a grand tour to become better acquainted with the royal family and our dealings in the region. Dare I say, in the world.”
“Doesn’t he have enough worldly knowledge?” Omar barely glanced at Mark. “Perhaps it’s time he returned to his ivory tower and leave the real work to the men in the family.”
Mark ignored Omar’s rudeness and stepped forward, fascinated by the engineering plans. The maps and schematics made sense immediately. “Are you involved in potash mining? One of my majors in college is natural resources management.”
“When you’re done with college, I’ll take the time to tell you all about our dealings in potash mining.” Omar stepped in between Mark and his table covered in fascinating documents. Mark’s shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“I’ll look forward to your tutelage, Your Highness,” Mark said with sincerity. “I’ll do my best to learn all I can about our kingdom and the surrounding landscape during my studies. I’ve yet to choose a thesis project for graduate school. Perhaps if there are any challenges you’re facing I could include one in my research.”
“I’m sure I can overcome any challenges without your research.” Omar’s condescending tone was draining Mark’s resistance to return snide remarks.
“Your Highness,” Alex stage whispered to Mark, turning his head down and to his left as if whispering in Mark’s ear. “Perhaps your expertise in aerial photography using onboard remote sensing devices could be put to good use in the same way the technology is revolutionizing modern agriculture in the U.S.”
“Fantastic idea,” Mark stage whispered back to Alex. “I’ll have to evaluate the possibilities.”
“Was there something else you needed, Your Majesty?” Omar asked. “Surely you had some other reason to interrupt my work besides introducing me to a boy I met last night.”
“Ah, but you have things backwards, Your Highness,” King Sayid said. “I wasn’t introducing you to him. I was introducing him to you. Carry on, gentlemen.” With a swish of his robes, Sayid turned on his heels and led them from the room.
Mark raised his eyebrows at Alex then nodded to Omar and Ahmed. “Good to see you again, Your Highness.” Mark and Alex turned to follow after the king, leaving his cousin’s office with renewed confidence sandwiched between apprehension and terror.
“You look so much like him,” a nostalgic voice said from the doorway.
Mark looked up from where he was pawing through his suitcase searching for his bottle of Motrin.
The headache he’d had for the past hour finally drove him from the dancefloor. He was certain he was already dehydrated, having refused every glass of liquid offered to him since he stepped into this palace.
Oh sure, he held the glass in his hand, and lifted the glass to his lips if someone suggested a toast, but despite his thirst, he didn’t trust anyone.
Alex had casually excused himself after dinner to make a phone call and ordered a helicopter to fly to the nearest large town and purchase several cases of water bottles and Powerade, along with protein bars and dried fruit and any other provisions he might need to keep him alive while visiting his homeland.
“Your Majesty!” Mark quickly bowed when he realized his great-grandfather, King Sayid, had stepped into his suite.
“Arise, my boy,” the king said. “We are alone. You can drop the pretenses.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty.” Mark stood at attention. His crown seemed to weigh twice as much under the king’s scrutiny.
“It suits you,” Sayid said, nodding to the symbolic adornment. “Your father was smart to name you after my son.”
“He was an amazing man, You Majesty,” Mark said, relaxing his shoulders. “I loved your son very much.”
“We have that in common,” he said, glancing around the suite that forty years ago had been filled with the love and laughter of Prince Marcos and his young bride, Lyla, Mark’s grandparents. “I’ve missed him terribly these past years.”
“He asked me to convey his deep regret at not returning to our homeland,” Mark said, taking a step closer to this man he barely knew. “And asked for your forgiveness.”
“I’m afraid I should be the one asking forgiveness,” Sayid lowered his gaze.
“He offered that as well,” Mark said, fearing reprimand for the bold way he was insinuating the king had been in the wrong.
“He offered me forgiveness?” When he looked up, King Sayid’s expression was that of a hopeful child whose remorse was eating away at his insides.
Mark nodded, fighting tears.
In a startling conveyance of affection, his great-grandfather closed the distance between them and pulled Mark into his arms. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad I came,” Mark said. With hesitation he wrapped his arms around the majestic king whose body felt much frailer than it looked under the layers of impressive robes. “I’ve dreamt of my homeland all my life.”
“You have?” Sayid pulled back, a crease in his brow.
“Nearly every night,” Mark said, dropping his arms. “That’s what got me interested in geospatial analytics.”
“Geo-what?” Sayid laughed.
“We use cameras on drones and airplanes to see what’s on the ground and evaluate and analyze how best to use the land and resources.”
“You are a very intelligent young man, aren’t you?” the king asked.
“I’d like to think so,” Mark said with a chuckle.
“Back up, though. How does this ground analytics thing relate to your dreams about your homeland?”
“Well, I didn’t know that’s what I was seeing in my dreams until I flew over Madain Saleh in our private jet this morning. The scene was nearly identical to the land I’d dreamt about all these years.”
“Your heart is here.” King Sayid cocked his head to the side and pursed his lips. “I’m glad.”
“Me too.” Mark meant it. Even with all the drama of the royal family and his suspicions and his paranoia, he was glad he’d come.
“Tomorrow, I will personally take you on a tour and introduce you to everyone.” Sayid clapped his hands together once as if excited to play tour guide for his long-lost great-grandson.
“I’d like that, Your Majesty,” Mark said.
Just then there was a clanking coming down the hall and Alex came around the corner into the room gripping a dolly that carried several cases of water, Powerade, and food. His sweaty brow, and the way Alex almost tore his suitcoat off upon arrival, attested to the heat and exertion of getting the provisions here to Mark’s suite.
“I see you’ve heard rumors about the food and beverages in the palace being poisoned.” The king chuckled.
“No offense to you, Your Majesty, but I don’t trust anyone here,” Mark said.
“I don’t blame you.” Sayid patted Mark on the shoulder and stepped out of Alex’s way, back toward the door. Before leaving the room, the king turned back and met Mark’s gaze. “As long as you’re wearing that crown on your head, trust no one.”
As King Sayid left the room, he pulled the door shut behind him and Mark had a shiver of dread run up his spine.
“Gee, who’s ready to be done for the night?” Alex asked, locking the door behind the king.
“I’ve never been so thankful to see a case of water in my life,” Mark said, tearing open the plastic and twisting the cap off the first bottle he yanked from the opening. He sucked down half the bottle before pausing to uncap his Motrin. After taking 800 milligrams, Mark sat at his grandfather’s dressing table and looked at his best friend through the mirror. “Let’s get this target off my head and then I’ll take the couch and you can have the bed.”
“No way,” Alex said, reaching into the closet for the leather bag that held the velvet box for Mark’s crown. “I’m sleeping on the couch and you’re taking the bed. If anyone ever finds out I let the Crown Prince sleep on the couch I’d be chased from the kingdom.”
“If you ever call me the Crown Prince outside this room, we’ll both be chased from the kingdom.”
Alex placed the leather bag on the dressing table and removed the largest velvet box. Ceremoniously opening the box, he stepped behind Mark and their eyes connected in the mirror.
They both took a deep breath and let their shoulders relax, remembering the importance of treating the crown with reverence. When they were ready, Alex reached out and carefully lifted the crown from Mark’s head and floated the heavy crown over to rest it into the velvet box. He nested the smaller box on top and placed both of them reverently into the leather bag along with the small jewelry box that held Hazel’s diamond.
Lifting the heavy bag off the dressing table, Alex stood there as if weighing it. “How much do you think that’s valued in U.S. dollars?”
“More than my inheritance,” Mark mumbled.
“It’s worth a small kingdom tucked into the deserts of Saudi Arabia,” Mark said.
“Give or take a few oil reserves.” Alex carried the bag to Mark’s closet and tucked it just inside, then shut off the closet light.
“Tell me more about what you’re studying at your university, Your Highness,” Nimrah said, batting her eyelashes.
“I wouldn’t want to bore you, Princess,” Mark said, draping his arm around the back of her chair and leaning closer. “Unless you like to fly drones.”
“I’ve never flown one before,” she said, leaning closer to him as well. “Maybe you could teach me sometime.” She pulled her long chestnut hair off her shoulder so that her face was closer to Mark and he caught a whiff of a natural oil that smelled of incense.
“Maybe in a few years… you know, when you’re all grown up.” Mark made it a point to let his eyes roam down the length of her body and then back up to meet her gaze. The heavy silk gown she wore was probably imported from somewhere in India and handsewn by an expert craftsman.
“Do you think I’m too young to… fly a drone?” she asked, her voice as suggestive as he’d predicted. Her alluring eyes drew him in, and Mark remembered his cousin’s warning not to get caught in her web.
“We’ll have to see how the next few years play out while I finish school,” he said, his voice purposefully low and husky. “Maybe by the time I come home to Madain Saleh, you will have already had all the training you need.”
Mark accomplished several goals with one sentence, claiming this as his home, indicating he’d be back in a few years, and setting up the notion that she may choose someone else between now and then. This conversation had also conveyed the message that he was interested in her but that she was too young right now. His cousin’s coaching had been spot-on. This was working brilliantly.
“A girl could always learn new skills,” the princess said in sultry voice.
“I’ll bet she could,” Mark said with seduction lacing his words. Without turning away first he added in a low voice. “I’d better finish this meal, or I won’t have the energy to dance with you later this evening.”
“We wouldn’t want that.” Nimrah giggled and reached for her own fork.
Mark straightened in his chair and met Eli’s gaze across the table. He could almost hear his cousin’s compliment through his approving nod. Perfect acting skills.
His quiet conversation with the princess had garnered attention from others at the table as well, some with little more than a passing glance, but others with open encouragement of their flirting. Particularly the Princess of Tayma who smirked and raised her glass of wine in a subtle toast meant to be shared just with Mark.
He didn’t take the bait. He still hadn’t drunk much of anything since arriving in the kingdom nearly eight hours earlier. Not sure the food was safe either, Mark risked illness because he was even more hungry than thirsty. The mild headache throbbing within him would hopefully diminish with dinner.
Serving food for several hundred people required space and the palace certainly had that. The cavernous reception hall was decorated similar to an American wedding reception. Large tables draped with colorful cloths had been meticulously set prior to the guests entering from the throne room.
Each course that arrived was elaborate and as fine as any five-star restaurant in the States. The chefs seemed to be drawing inspiration from around the globe. Mediterranean style salad with quinoa and feta cheese, black olives, cucumbers and balsamic dressing. Grilled fish marinated in Asian spices, a rice dish featuring onions, garlic, ginger, cashews and raisins, and a Kunafa served hot with drizzled chocolate sauce and ice cream.
The entertainment for the evening drew the guests back to the throne room which had been transformed into a dance hall with colorful lighting, Zaffa drummers, Egyptian dancers, and a Middle Eastern Dabke dance number. Mark found his foot tapping along to the beating drums from his place of honor in a throne that had been placed to the left of his great-grandmother, Her Grace, Queen Salaina.
Eventually the performance morphed into an opportunity for the royal family and guests to join the entertainers on the dance floor. Mark carefully escorted Her Grace down the marble steps to the dance floor and joined several of his extended cousins in a tribute dance that resembled a Lebanese wedding dance honoring their great-grandmother and queen. He hadn’t smiled so much since learning his grandfather was dying.
Mark temporarily forgot his headache until the lights and pounding drums and sweat from a hundred dancing bodies got the better of him. By the time he found himself in the arms of the enchanting Princes of Nimrah, his head was pounding.
He tried to keep smiling and laughing and dancing but eventually even she noticed he wasn’t feeling well. Her brow creased. “Are you okay?”
“Not really,” Mark called over the music, taking Nimrah’s hand and dragging her away from the center of the dancefloor. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?” she asked, clinging to his arm as if he was taking her off somewhere to steal a kiss. Instead he made a beeline toward her father, Prince Jared.
“Your Highness,” Mark said, tucking Nimrah’s hand into her father’s. “Could you take my place on the dancefloor for a few moments? I’m not feeling well.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” Jared said, escorting his pouting daughter back toward the crowd.
Mark turned on his heel and headed for the exit from the throne room, knowing that Alex had already left to retrieve the one thing he needed even more than Motrin or food. He just hoped Alex returned quickly or he’d be nursing a migraine.
“How did I do?” Mark asked Eli in a hushed tone. The two princes stood beside each other near one corner of the throne room, waiting for the meal to commence. They each held a glass of wine, more as props than refreshment. Mark had never even tasted wine, having grown up in a sober family and not even legally old enough to drink alcohol in the United States. He hoped there were other choices of beverages in this arid country or he’d suffer from dehydration before returning to the States.
“Better than I could have predicted,” Eli said, his voice as low as Mark’s. “Nimrah has already requested the seating arrangement be reorganized to have you at her side. Her left side, of course.”
“Of course,” Mark sneered. “I will be sure to offer her my undivided attention.”
“Don’t get caught in her web, my cousin,” Eli warned. “And do not go anywhere alone with her.”
“If she tries anything, I’ll make mention of my intended bride back in the States,” Mark said. “The daughter of a powerful U.S. senator.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise either.” Eli pursed his lips in thought. “At least not until the last day you’re here. Flirt with her tonight, then stay regrettably busy meeting with the king and other princes over the next few days.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark said. “I look forward to that anyway. Any advice about my audience with the king?”
“Do not bring up your suspicions about the likely affair between his second wife and his grandson’s advisor,” Eli said.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Mark said. “And tell me more about your older brother.”
“Jared is next in line behind my father, although Nimrah calls the shots in that family.”
“Seems a lot of power bestowed upon a fifteen-year-old girl,” Mark said.
“There has never been a Crown Princess in the history of our kingdom, and the Princess of Nimrah seems to think that should be remedied.”
“Have you considered the claim my grandfather made that he was the rightful Crown since his older brother died?” Mark asked, sensing now was as good a time as any to broach the subject.
“By de facto bestowing that right to yourself, no doubt?”
“Naturally,” Mark said.
“Is that your intention? To challenge the throne?”
“What are your thoughts on the subject, Your Highness?” Mark asked.
“The claim has merit—” Eli hesitated. “You would have an uphill battle, that’s for sure.”
“I am wearing the crown,” Mark stated, knowing his grandfather had brought with him his older brother’s official crown, the one bestowed upon the Crown Prince at his coronation. Mark’s brazen display of the adornment at this reception was enough to raise suspicion and cause division among the royal family.
“I’m aware of that,” Eli said through clenched teeth. “Boldly, I might add.”
“I’m not sure I intended that as a compliment,” Eli said. “I’m undecided.”
“I will tell you this,” Eli said, finally turning to look Mark in the eye, man to man, cousin to cousin, prince to prince. “I would stand at your side should you make that choice.”
“I would welcome your support,” Mark said honestly.
“You would be a far better ruler and more honest.” Eli sighed and glanced around the throne room as if he were a stranger evaluating those in attendance at the reception. “I fear for the future of our country if the Princess of Nimrah gains any more power than she already possesses.”
“Let’s discuss this again in a few days after I’ve taken full assessment of the situation,” Mark said.
“I look forward to that report,” Eli said.
Just then the same gentleman who announced Mark’s arrival called out that dinner was ready to be served.
“Your princess awaits,” Eli said with a chuckle.
“Wish me luck,” Mark grumbled.
The throne room made the foyer seem diminutive. Before stepping into the entrance to be announced, Mark took a moment to assess the layout. An actual red carpet stretched from the entrance to the far wall, the center of which included a raised platform of marble where three thrones sat. Several lower levels of raised platforms sat to the right of the king, each with thrones, all of which were occupied by various members of the royal family.
Small groupings of dignitaries stood around the room; unaware they were being watched. 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 the United States because Madain Saleh was a monarchy rather than a democracy.
Mark had been told the court would also include descendants of the queen’s sister and brothers, the king’s sister, aunts, uncles, and a myriad of cousins.
Formal dress was apparently in the eye of the beholder. Some men were in business suits or military uniforms, others wore ornate robes made of colorful linens. Only a few wore tuxedos and Mark was glad he and Alex had opted for formal suits. Some women wore floor-length evening gowns and jewels while others were shrouded from head to toe. Most fell somewhere in between, and all of them seemed to be comfortable in their chosen attire.
“Are you ready, Your Highness?” a young man asked from beside him. The man, not much older than Mark, didn’t introduce himself but didn’t ask for an introduction either. Mark sensed the disadvantage of everyone knowing who he was and why he was here.
With a slight lift of his chin Mark stepped forward, sensing Alex just behind his right shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he could have handled all this without his best friend. He understood the double meaning behind the notion of having a trusted advisor with him through all stages of life.
“Your Majesty and Your Grace,” the young man called out with surprising clarity, attesting to the acoustics of the throne room. “May I present His Royal Highness, Prince Marcos, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Murmurs seemed to proceed them as they walked the length of the room and Mark realized the genius of elevating Alex’s status by including his lineage.
As he got closer to the royal family, Mark took inventory. The king and queen both wore black formal mourning attire, as did a gentleman one platform below the highest. Mark assumed that was his grandfather’s nephew, Eli’s father, Prince Omar.
Above Omar, on the same platform as the king and queen but with a slightly smaller throne sat a woman in blood red velvet, almost as if purposely avoiding the appearance of mourning. From all descriptions he’d heard up to this moment of his life, Mark had no doubt this woman was the Princess of Tayma.
In a calculating move, Mark raised one eyebrow at the princess and the corner of her mouth pulled into a tiny smirk. Mark quickly pulled his gaze away, his attention drawn further down the levels of the platform to where Omar’s oldest son, Eli’s older brother Jared sat in a placement of honor that seemed almost above that of his father even though his throne was one level lower on the platform. Although another woman sat to his left, who Mark assumed with Jared’s wife, an obvious emphasis rested on the fifteen-year-old girl to his right.
Mark understood immediately what Eli had meant about the dynamics of the royal family. Because Eli’s throne sat behind, albeit a step above, his niece, the smirk he gave Eli, complete with a slight lift to his eyebrows, was misinterpreted by the demure young lady. She sat up a little straighter and flipped her long hair over her shoulder. Mark almost laughed but knew that only added to the illusion. She would perceive him to be smiling at her. Perfect.
At the base of the marble steps leading up the platform, Mark paused and lowered himself to one knee, taking comfort that Alex had followed his lead without hesitation.
“Your Majesty—” Mark bowed his head briefly— “And Your Grace. It is with regret that I bring you the news that your son, His Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid of Mada’in Saleh has passed away. I have brought him home that he might be returned to the soil from which he came.”
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid nodded regally and held out his hand.
Mark took that as the invitation to approach the thrones and led Alex up the stairs to stand before the king. “Your Majesty, I am your great-grandson, Prince Marcos Sayid, son of Prince Benjamin Sayid, and grandson of the late Prince Marcos Sayid. May I present my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
King Sayid raised one eyebrow at the Cohen name, then lifted a hand to introduce the women who sat on either side. “May I present, Her Grace, Queen Salaina of Madain Saleh, and my second wife, the Princess of Tayma.”
“Your Grace, I’m honored to finally meet you.” Mark bowed to his great-grandmother and pulled her hand to his lips in a kiss of respect. Alex appropriately held back and didn’t step forward to greet the king or queen, merely bowed his head and maintained his stance behind Mark.
Mark stepped to the other side of the king’s throne and similarly greeted his great-grandfather’s second wife, forgoing the bow of respect he’d given the queen. “Princess, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
When he pulled her hand to his lips for a kiss, the princess gave his hand a little squeeze and he allowed a tiny twitch of his mouth that could be interpreted as a subtle smirk.
He was thankful once again for Eli’s coaching. This whole sequence of introductions would have been completely flubbed had he not known what to expect.
“May I present my son,” the princess practically purred at Mark. “His Highness, Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” Her emphasis on the word crown was even stronger than that of her son’s advisor, Ahmed, who stood dutifully behind Omar’s throne. The almost defiant gleam in his eye confirmed Mark’s previous suspicion that Ahmed was involved in a brazenly open affair with Tayma. Interesting.
“Your Highness,” Mark said to Omar with an added level of respect and admiration. “Your uncle, His Highness Prince Marcos, wished for me to convey to you the extreme amount of love he held for you throughout the remainder of his life, and the regret that he felt in never having the opportunity to see you again before he died.”
Mark fought the urge to glare at Omar’s mother, knowing she was the reason why his grandfather never had a chance to say goodbye to his beloved nephew. It wasn’t Omar’s fault his mother was an evil woman who tried to kill Mark’s father. Mark once again felt sick at the notion that he needed to play nice with her as long as he was visiting the kingdom.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Omar said with real sadness in his voice. “I remember him fondly as well. I regret not having him here as I grew up.”
Omar seemed to pause and compose himself then lifted his gaze and straightened his shoulders.
“May I introduce my sons, Prince Jared, and Prince Elmer.”
“Prince Elmer was of great assistance to me this afternoon when he escorted me from the airport.” Mark nodded to Omar, then stepped down to reach out a hand to Jared. “Pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. You simply must introduce me to this lovely young lady at your side.”
“May I introduce my daughter, Her Highness, the Princess of Nimrah.”
“A princess befitting such a strong name, I’m sure.” Mark took her hand and bore his gaze into the young girl’s almost feline features. If she lived up to the origin or her name, which quite literally meant bitterness and rebellion, she was going to be a force to be reckoned with. A chill raced down Mark’s spine and he feared for the future of his kingdom with the likes of her in charge.
If Eli had been overly-casual greeting his cousin at the airport, that ended when they arrived at the palace. The forty-five-minute drive through the dusty mountainous caverns and open desert gave them an opportunity to discuss all who they would meet upon arriving.
“My father was seventeen when my older brother, Jared, was born,” Eli explained.
“Seventeen?” Mark’s jaw dropped.
“It is tradition, and expected, that the Crown Prince be married at sixteen,” Eli said.
“Man, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in Madain Saleh,” Mark grumbled then turned his attention back to his cousin. “How old was your father when you were born?” Mark was trying to do the math in his head, but nothing was lining up.
“I wasn’t born until he was twenty-six, which meant I became an uncle at the ripe old age of eight.”
“Yeah, my brother had his daughter when he was seventeen,” Eli said. “She is by far the most spoiled little fifteen-year-old princess you’ll ever meet. Takes after our grandmother, the lovely and charming Princess of Tayma.” Sarcasm dripped from Eli’s words.
“I take it you don’t like your grandmother?” Mark’s rhetorical question was interrupted by Alex.
“Forgive me, Your Highnesses, but isn’t she the reason your grandfather fled this land with your father in his arms because she tried to poison him?” Alex raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“My initial reaction to your question is that none of us are safe as long as she is pulling strings in the background.” Eli chuckled nervously. “But the reality is my niece and grandmother are both such flighty airheads, to borrow some American slang, I don’t think poisoning you would even cross their minds, especially if they don’t see you as a threat.”
“That’s… reassuring.” Mark gulped and glanced at Alex, realizing one of the reasons they were here was to assert his status as heir to the throne. His strategy shifted as quickly as the moment he added Cohen to Alexander’s name.
“Oddly, my best advice is for you to flirt with them,” Eli said.
“What?” Mark’s jaw dropped.
“Stoke their already inflated egos. My grandmother is an immature sixty-seven years old but thinks she’s thirty-five and regularly takes much younger men as her lovers,” Eli said.
“Yeah, that ain’t happening,” Mark said, disgusted at the thought for more reasons than he could count.
“Nor do I recommend it,” Eli said. “But appeal to her youthfulness and treat her as a peer, then ask her about her lovely granddaughter.”
“The fifteen-year-old?” Mark gulped, feeling mildly nauseated by this whole conversation. If he thought it was repulsive to date Hazel while she was seventeen, fifteen was jailbait.
“She has yet to choose a husband,” Eli explained. “A wealthy distant cousin, who also happens to be a prince whose roots trace back to Madain Saleh with only one generation removed? Yeah, you are perfect.”
“P—perfect?” Mark wondered if he’d need to pull the car over.
“I’m not saying you actually entertain the notion.” Eli backtracked. “I’m just giving you pointers on how best to survive the next few days.
“Gee, thanks.” Mark gulped. “I’ll take all this into consideration.”
“Oh, and Alexander—” Eli turned to Alex. “When advising your prince, pull him aside and stage-whisper in his ear rather than interrupt his conversation. You will be seen as a highly revered advisor with an impressive bloodline who elevates Prince Marcos’ status even loftier by mere association.”
Alex sat up straighter and lifted his nose with an air of snobbery.
“Perfect,” Eli said. “Your acting skills are superb. But remember to stay one step behind and to the right and never attempt to be his equal.”
Alex’s shoulders drooped. “Gee thanks.”
“I’m just helping you guys out,” Eli said. “I want you to enjoy your stay here. You can laugh about it later. Oh, and by the way, I am not your equal either. My status in our royal family is almost a step down from Alexander’s as your advisor.”
“You’re kidding,” Mark said.
“Not at all,” Eli said with resignation. “I was told by my father’s advisor that I should be walking to your left and one step behind Alexander.”
“Wow… okay,” Mark said. “Interesting.”
“Here we go,” Eli said as the limo came to a rolling stop before the main entrance of the palace. “Do not get out of the car until my father’s advisor opens the limo door for you, which he will, rather quickly I might add.”
Eli was correct. Before Mark could gather his bearings, the door to the limousine opened and an older gentleman greeted him.
“Prince Marcos Sayid,” the man said, bowing regally. “Welcome to Madain Saleh.”
This wasn’t what Mark had expected. Because his dreams had involved a mountainous desert, similar to the region they’d traversed between the airport and Madain Saleh, Mark had imagined ancient ruins and third world conditions.
The ruins were there, of course, on the outskirts, covered in thousand-year-old hieroglyphs no one could read, but they were more used as tourist attractions. The palace and city center were modern displays of old-money and haughty ambition funded by petroleum reserves and potash mining.
Everything Mark’s father and grandfather had taught as important values, such as generosity and humility, were a juxtaposition in this environment. They had been inspired to warn him in advance of his arrival.
Mark stepped from the limo and waited to greet Prince Omar’s advisor until Alex had joined him at his side.
“I am Ahmed bet David, advisor to Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” The man bowed his head respectfully, if briefly. The strange combination of traditional Muslim and Jewish names peaked Mark’s interest, but he chose not to question him, nor did he acknowledge Ahmed’s emphasis on the word ‘crown’ in the mention of his prince.
“Allow me to present my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson,” Mark said, holding his hand out to his right as if displaying Alex proudly.
“Cohen?” Ahmed raised his eyebrows. “Any relation to the late Levi Cohen?”
“I am his great-grandson by lineage of Nicholas Cohen,” Alex said.
“A respected businessman in his own right,” Ahmed acknowledged.
“Thank you, I agree.” Alex maintained his air of aloof haughtiness and Mark struggled to keep a straight face, remembering how Eli had complimented Alex on his acting skills.
“I trust that you will enjoy your visit to our kingdom.” His subtle emphasis on the words ‘visit’ and ‘our’ were a little too obvious.
Mark fought the urge to narrow his eyes at Ahmed. Something about his demeaner was off. And where was his prince? Shouldn’t they be together at all times? Why did this man seem to be in charge? Telling Eli where to stand and making declarations about the Crown. Eli had said the Princess of Tayma was pulling the strings in the background. Was this man as well? All in the attempt to elevate the spoiled, fifteen-year-old princess? Something wasn’t right. There were more moving parts to this royal family than he anticipated.
“Your cousin, His Highness Prince Elmer will escort you to your suite,” Ahmed said. “We have arranged to have a grand reception for you this evening and formal attire is expected.”
“Naturally,” Mark said without reacting to the snide way Ahmed said Eli’s name. As a means of elevating Eli’s standing, Mark took a step back and nodded to his cousin. “I will follow you, Your Highness.”
Eli pursed his lips in a way that Mark could tell was trying to hide a grin and raised his eyebrows as he led the way into the palace. One good deed for the afternoon. The least Mark could do after the invaluable advice Eli had provided on the ride from the airport.
The palace boasted shining white marble floors, cathedral ceilings and sparkling crystal chandeliers. Three groupings of four brocade sofas strategically arranged around low tables attested to the sheer length of the foyer, which was adorned by Persian rugs and elaborate tapestries. Mark immediately picked up on the Middle Eastern influences his grandfather had included in decorating his home in Mexico.
“We’ve upkept your grandfather’s suite and you’ll be honored to be the first person sleeping there since he left,” Eli said, turning his head sideways and behind in much the same way a tour guide would explain a museum exhibit. “His Majesty, King Sayid, never gave up hope that his son would one day return to occupy his suite.”
“His Highness, Prince Marcos regretted on his deathbed that he hadn’t taken the time to do so,” Mark said. “Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he requested I return his body to our homeland.”
After multiple twists and turns and ascending two sets of grand staircases, they finally stopped in front of a set of ornately carved double doors
“Here we are,” Eli said, opening the doors to reveal an elegant sitting room that resembled the one in his parents’ bedroom suite.
Mark gravitated slowly to the obviously more masculine of the two dressing tables, imagining how his namesake would have sat here with Collins behind him, attending to the care and management of more than just the crown, but the kingdom.
A startling thought jumped into his mind and he turned to Eli. “Is your father’s advisor having an affair with the Princess of Tayma?”
“How on earth did you pick up on that?” Eli folded his arms and leaned against the door frame.
“The hand that rocks the cradle,” Mark said, in awe of the notion that he was right and more alarming, the implication.
“I’m not following you.” Eli creased his brow.
“There’s an American saying about how the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” Mark explained. “Who is actually ruling our kingdom?”
“I’ll be interested to hear your take after you’ve been here a few days,” Eli said, creasing his brow. “Having an affair is one thing, influencing matters of state… I’m going to need some time to process that.”
“Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see what’s right in front of our eyes,” Mark said, turning back to his grandfather’s suite. “What time shall we make our appearance at the reception?”
“The reception begins at seven o’clock, so I’d suggest arriving at about twenty minutes after the hour,” Eli said, straightening and preparing to leave the suite.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Mark said sincerely, stepping over to his cousin and affectionately placing his hands atop Eli’s shoulders. “You have been a wealth of knowledge.”
“Glad to be of assistance, Your Highness,” Eli returned the sentiment. “I’ll see you at the reception.”
“What do you mean, gone?” Mark asked, panic in his heart. He had arrived at breakfast excited to see his princess again. After the best kiss of his life had left his head floating in the clouds all night, he hoped the magic still existed at sunrise.
“Nicholas was ready to get home to his own family after taking his granddaughter to the airport,” Benjamin said. He was so matter-of-fact as if this news didn’t rip Mark’s world apart. “You need to get ready to return your grandfather’s casket to his homeland. I’ve arranged for the jet to leave later this evening.”
“I have to fly the whole way there with a casket in the airplane?”
“It’s not just a casket, son,” Benjamin said. “That is the final resting place of a man who was a great leader, a devoted father and grandfather, and the Crown Prince of Madain Saleh. His father, King Sayid, is waiting to welcome him home.”
“Do I really have to do this alone?” Mark was fighting emotions that had been too close to the surface for days.
“Alexander will accompany you.”
“Great,” Mark said. “The blind leading the blind.”
“I have faith in you both.”
“That makes one of us,” Mark grumbled then turned on his heel and ascended the stairs to his bedroom suite, resigned to finish packing.
Eight hours later, the two twenty-year old college students sat wide-eyed in the same private jet that had taken them to Cozumel, sharing space in the once-spacious cabin with an elegant casket and a noticeable absence of the snarky, feisty ball of energy he had come to love over the past week.
The pilot took them to a destination that was foreign and mystical, filled with vast sand that stretched for miles.
As the private jet banked in a circle around the tiny kingdom of Madain Saleh, Mark gasped. This was the land from his dream. The dream he’d experienced many times throughout his life. The dream where he was flying atop his drone above a strange land that was only familiar because he’d seen it in his dreams so many times. This time, Mark wasn’t asleep.
The mountainous ravines and windswept deserts were rocky and unforgiving, with little vegetation, and sandstone outcroppings that had been carved into monuments with elaborately ornate facades.
Madain Saleh was dunes of sand resting on bedrock at the foot of a basalt plateau. It was elegance and terror and desolation wrapped in sand and carved from the rocks. Mark wanted to jump from the jet and skydive down just so he could experience his kingdom from all vantage points.
The nearest airport was 45-minutes by car but only a few moments as the crow flies. As soon as the pilot gave them their fly-by, he asked them to return to their seats and buckle in for landing.
Before leaving the airplane, Alex and Mark retreated to the private bedroom in the back of the plane and took a few moments to place Mark’s crown so that when he descended the steps down to the tarmac, he would arrive in Madain Saleh as their prince.
He wasn’t sure if his crown made any difference since they were greeted by two young men of similar age, one of whom was also wearing a crown. They leaned casually against the side of a large and sturdy-looking limousine, both wearing formal linen robes and shades. The young man in the crown stepped forward and extended his hand.
“Greetings, my cousin,” the man said. “I am Eli.”
“Mark—” he reached for his cousin’s hand. He didn’t remember anyone in his family with the name Eli, and he had studied the full lineage prior to arriving. He’d also studied other names commonly used in the Middle East along with their traditional meanings. “What’s your real name?”
“Elmer,” Eli said through clenched teeth.
“I can see why you go by Eli.” Mark chuckled.
“Yeah, what were my parents thinking?” Eli’s lip twitched in a smirk, and he leaned his shoulder against the limo again, which Mark realized was actually a Hummer. They travelled in style.
“Who is your father?” Mark asked.
“Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Eli said, raising his chin slightly almost challenging Mark to question him.
Mark ignored the reference to Omar claiming the title of Crown. “My grandfather spoke highly of his nephew. Will I have the opportunity to meet him?”
“Absolutely,” Eli said. “We have a planned reception for you this evening.”
“I’m honored,” Mark said, then stepped aside and brought Alex closer. “This is my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Mark made a split-second decision to hyphenate Alex’s last name as a way of adding authority by way of name recognition. The Cohen family were practically royalty in the Middle East even though they made claim to no physical kingdom. Almost like being a Kennedy in the United States. To his credit, Alex didn’t bat an eye to the alteration.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Alexander.” Eli greeted Alex in a similar casual style as he’d greeted Mark minus the handshake.
“Likewise, Your Highness.” Alex nodded his head respectfully.
“And this is my advisor, Kadin,” Eli said, indicating the young man at his side. Mark almost chuckled out loud at his name, which meant friend or companion. Fitting. Instead, he smiled and resisted the urge to shake the kid’s hand. He needed to remember he wasn’t in America anymore and here in Madain Saleh he was openly recognized as a prince. He stood erect as the man bowed his head regally.
“My honor to meet you, Your Highness,” Kadin said.
While they were yet speaking, several gentlemen were busy lowering the casket from the jet and the four young men turned reverently to watch as the late Prince Marcos Sayid was brought to the ground and rolled carefully into a waiting hearse.
“Come,” Eli said, opening the door to the waiting limo. “Let’s escort Prince Marcos home.”
Just as they’d practiced, Mark and Alex stood in a small square with Benjamin and Pedro. But this time, Mark and his father knelt before their advisors with solemn respect.
The funeral chapel full of people almost collectively held their breath and there was barely a rustling of paper or a whisper in the room.
Because the crown was already on Benjamin’s head, there was no leather bag or velvet box anywhere in the room. Mark wouldn’t see those until late that evening when Alex would remove the crown from his head.
“Ultima vez,” Pedro whispered, and Benjamin lowered his head and closed his eyes. Pedro lifted the crown and once again it seemed to float in the air over to Alex’s waiting hands. Even though there were no words required for this ceremony, Pedro whispered again. “Buena suerte, Alexander.”
“Gracias, Senor,” Alex whispered back, then turned to Mark with shaking hands.
Mark lifted his chin to meet the gaze of his best friend, who was, with this symbolic gesture, committing his life to service and promising to stand beside Mark presumably for the remainder of their lives.
With resignation, Mark bowed his head and closed his eyes, similar to how he’d seen his father do. With barely a feather touch of pressure, the crown was placed on Mark’s head and Alex took a step back.
Lifting his gaze once again, Mark realized in that moment, he was feeling the way he’d imagined his father had felt that afternoon when his expression could only be described as surreal brotherly love. Mark had wondered if he and Alex would have that significant of a connection.
Now he knew. He had a brother.
When they’d completed the symbolic transfer, the four men stood side-by-side and the people in the room rose to their feet in applause as if accepting Mark as their Crown Prince. He only hoped the people in Madain Saleh were as welcoming.
* * * * * * * * *
Two hours had passed since the coronation and many people were milling about throughout the lower level of the mansion, although the crowd had thinned. Mark realized he hadn’t taken the time to view himself in a mirror and quietly ducked into the hallway off the foyer where he knew there was a large gilded mirror.
He wasn’t fully prepared for the man who stood before him. Over the course of one week, Mark had transformed from a carefree college kid to a regal gentleman. He looked like a prince.
“How’s that crown feel?” a soft voice asked from the doorway. Hazel wore a soft, flowing gossamer gown that reached nearly to the floor. The sleeves were sheer and rested against her wrists after separating with several slits that opened to reveal her lightly tanned arms.
“Amazing,” Mark whispered. Mark reached for her hand and drew her toward him, turning her to face the mirror so that she was tucked into his chest and their eyes met in the mirror. “I wish I could explain it with words.”
She didn’t acknowledge that someday she might find out for herself, just let her eyes wander over the reflection. He thought of a way he could help her understand.
“I’ll show you.” Mark turned Hazel around, so she was facing him, and she lifted her face to gaze up at him. He placed his hands at the nape of her neck and slowly drew his fingers up into her hair as if giving her a head massage. He continued up into her hair as far as he could without pulling her hair or getting tangled. Then he held his hands there and pressed the pads of his fingers around the crown of her head in a wide circle around the backs and sides of her head and just held them there.
The gentle sound that escaped from somewhere inside Hazel was a cross between a whimper and a moan of ecstasy.
As he had done the night before, Mark took advantage of the moment and lowered his face to hers capturing her lips with his while leaving his hands in her hair. Her body molded to his as she pulled herself closer, deepening the kiss.
If they were already married, he would have carried her up the stairs at that moment and laid her down on their bed. But they weren’t, and he couldn’t, and this kiss had to end eventually. He wasn’t in any hurry though, and neither was she.
Mark had no idea how long they kissed standing together in that hallway, holding each other as close as physically possible without removing clothing. He wasn’t sure if anyone else saw them kissing, nor did he care. They all expected Mark would eventually marry Hazel anyway so what did it matter?
He wanted her now. Badly. He was glad they’d both made a commitment to wait for marriage because if he hadn’t already decided, that moment would have decided for them. He forced himself to pull away from her and willed his body to calm down, pressing his forehead against hers and reveling in the quiet moment. Their heavy breathing and the pounding of his heart was the only sound interrupting his thoughts.
I love you, he thought in his head, but didn’t say the words out loud. He didn’t want any physical experience to influence the moment when he finally told her how he felt, if he ever told her. He wanted to make darn sure she was ready for him to love her and be confident she loved him back. Instead, he leaned down and placed one more tiny kiss on her lips and then stepped back.
“Goodnight, Hazel,” he whispered, backing away.
“Goodnight, Mark,” she whispered, still leaning against the wall beside the mirror.
As Mark ascended the stairs two at a time, he sent a text to Alex, Come get this crown off my head. I need to be done for the night.
“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is a poignant collection of short essays by American author Robert Fulghum,” Benjamin stated as an opening to his eulogy. The service was held in an elegant funeral home just up the coast in Playa del Carmen. Even using their largest chapel, it was standing room only.
Mark had a place of honor behind and to the right of his father’s chair, which sat empty most of the service while he conducted. His father’s advisor, Pedro Hernandez sat to his left.
The late Prince Marcos Sayid lay in an open casket to the far left of the row of seats with his advisor, Collins beside him. He seemed emotional but resigned to the knowledge that today he was released from his duties.
Mark was comforted to have his own trusted advisor, Alexander, to his right, and his mother, Her Highness, Princess Nisha Sayid, to his left. Hazel sat in the front row beside her grandfather, Nicholas Cohen, and Noah and Andrew sat beside them.
Also, in the first few rows sat Prince Marcos’ staff, advisors, attorneys, house staff, business partners, extended family of the Cohen’s, local elected officials and business owners, and what seemed like every villager from the outlying communities. Mark’s grandfather had been well loved and respected.
“My father asked me to share some thoughts and impressions and insights with all of you,” Benjamin continued. “His list reads like an over-simplified musing of life instructions.” Benjamin took a step back from the podium.
Although Mark couldn’t see his father’s face from where he sat, he could envision the creased brow and pursed lips as he fought to maintain control of his emotions. Benjamin cleared his throat and continued with confidence.
“As many of you know, my father was raised Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh, second born to the still reigning, King Sayid. When his brother, the late Jared Sayid, died in a motorcycle accident at a young age, the king chose my father as the next Crown Prince rather than conferring the title upon his five-year-old nephew, who would have been next in line if Crown Prince Jared Sayid had lived until he came of age.
“This one choice, made by our reigning king, placed a target on my back, and that of my mother. Rather than having our lives in danger, my father fled with me in his arms and settled here.” Benjamin held his arms wide, outstretched to the people. “And I’m very glad he did.”
Many people in the room chuckled. He had brought smiles into a room filled with tissues and sniffling.
“Now that my son is of age, the title of Crown Prince will once again be passed from father to son,” Benjamin said. “My father has asked that we perform the coronation today as part of the celebration of his life.”
This brought murmurs from around the room and Mark momentarily thought the people were angry. He realized their faces were alight with excitement and anticipation. Mark’s nerves calmed from the heartfelt welcome that radiated from the people who cared for his grandfather, and father.
“It is my intention to stay here and serve all of you for the remainder of my life,” Benjamin continued. “My son will escort his grandfather home to our kingdom, continue his university education in the United States, and prepare himself to one day lead our people. I have complete faith in his ability to do so.”
Mark lowered his gaze and fought a flood of emotion at his father’s kind words and confidence in him.
“Before we proceed with the coronation,” Benjamin said. “I’ll attempt to bring a little humor into this otherwise dry list of instructions. Although I’m speaking to my son, these words apply to all of us in much the same way that Robert Fulghum taught the only advice we ever needed, we learned in kindergarten.”
Benjamin turned to Mark with a sly smile.
“You ready for this?” he asked.
“I’m ready, Your Highness.” I think.
“Learn as many languages as you can, learn about your ancestors, become a man of understanding, realize the importance of keeping good records of everything you do. People can’t be expected to remember details of things fifty years from now. Plus, you need to pass things down to your children, which is what I’m doing right now.” Benjamin turned part way and offered Mark a cheesy grin. “And Marcos has been commanded by his grandfather to have lots of beautiful babies.”
Mark chuckled and covered his eyes in mock embarrassment. He was never going to live that one down. Almost involuntarily his eyes strayed to glance at Hazel and he wished he hadn’t.
She was laughing right along with everyone else, but her expression was smoldering as if she had already decided she’d be the one with whom he’d make those beautiful babies. How was he supposed to keep her at arm’s length when she looked at him that way?
Mark turned his attention back to his father who had grown serious again.
“Know the importance of your name so that you might be distinguished from other people,” Benjamin said. “But be humble. Do not boast. You are not better than anyone else. Be submissive, meek, patient, and happy. Open your heart and mind and be full of love. I think that keeps in line with your grandfather’s instructions to have beautiful babies.”
“Oh my gosh, dad, stop.” Mark fought a full-on grin and avoided even glancing in Hazel’s direction.
“Serve others, labor with your own hands. Be thankful for the things you have and generous with your time, talents, and money. Seek not after riches for your own gain but to be used in the service of others. Give to the needy, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick. Teach your children. Don’t let them go hungry or fight with each other.” Benjamin paused again. “Do you see a pattern here with the whole ‘children’ thing?”
“Not at all,” Mark mumbled playfully.
“Be nice to others, beware of all contention, apologize when you’ve done something wrong and if you borrow something, return it.”
At that point Benjamin got serious again and his words caught with emotion, but he still managed to pull in some humor.
“When you are called upon to lead your kingdom do not overtax your people or keep slaves… I don’t know what century my father was living in when he wrote these, but some of these things should be self-evident by now.”
“Agreed.” Mark nodded.
“Lastly, don’t try to run faster than you have strength. Just do what you can do.”
Benjamin folded his paper and turned to Mark, who stood and reached his arms around his dad. “Thanks, dad.”
“What do you say we put a crown and that head of yours?” Benjamin whispered playfully.
Mark glanced up at his father’s head, at the almost bronzed finish of the ancient gold crown adorned in jewels and realized this was the last time he’d see his dad wear a crown.
“Right now, we’ll both be seated as we practice, but at the actual coronation we will kneel before our advisors,” Benjamin explained. He pulled a chair over from his wife’s dressing table and sat a few feet away from where Mark sat at his father’s. They faced outward so that Mark was unable to see what was happening in the mirror.
Hazel took a seat on the nearby sofa that extended his parent’s suite into an informal living room space. Her eyes were wide but resigned and curious. She took a long breath and blew it out slowly. Mark returned his focus to the men in front of him.
“Te mostrare como hacer esto,” Pedro said.
Mark hated to do this, but he and Alex needed to fully understand this and their limited fluency in Spanish was going to make an already stressful situation nearly impossible. “Is there any way we can do this in English?”
“Si,” Pedro said, then nodded over to Benjamin. “Les explicas.”
“Yes, I’ll explain the steps as Pedro demonstrates,” Benjamin said.
Pedro ceremoniously opened the large velvet-covered wooden box and reverently lifted the beautiful golden, jewel adorned crown from within. Almost floating the crown over to Benjamin, Pedro gradually raised it to the level of Benjamin’s head.
“There are no words that need to accompany the placing or removing of the crown,” Benjamin explained. “Just a sincere reverence.”
Benjamin bowed just slightly to offer the top of his head, and Pedro rested the crown in place. There were no clips or fasteners and yet the crown seemed to stay in place firmly as if it had been created just to fit him. Mark knew that wasn’t true. He wasn’t sure how many generations the crown had passed from one prince to the next, but he could almost feel his ancestry hanging in the air like a physical presence.
His father lifted his head and gazed up at Pedro with an expression that could only be described as surreal brotherly love. Mark wondered if he and Alex would have that significant of a connection.
“The removal is merely a reversal of that process,” Benjamin said softly. “Now this process will usually occur facing a mirror with you seated at your dressing table, but for the coronation we will be facing our advisors.
“The only other time you will be facing another person is during your wedding ceremony when you, Mark, not your advisor, will lift the crown from its box and place it onto your bride’s head, sealing your connection to one another and officially coronating her as your princess.
“Oh, I correct myself, this will also occur again if King Sayid passes away during your lifetime and you have a coronation to be crowned King.
“I correct myself again. This will occur again when your son is named Crown when he comes of age.”
“How old is that?” This had come out of left field for Mark. He was determined to make sure his oldest son was aware the coronation would happen at such a young age.
“Twenty, just like you,” Benjamin said. “This should have been done closer to your last birthday.”
“So, the coronation really has nothing to do with the death of my grandfather?” Mark asked. “Then why are we having the coronation as part of his funeral?”
“Convenience, mainly,” Benjamin said. “The family and community are already gathered. When I had my coronation, there were very few people in attendance.”
“Father, am I to understand that you have been Crown my entire life and I didn’t know about it?” A tear slipped down each of Mark’s cheeks and he couldn’t keep track of how many startling revelations had been dumped on him in the past week. He vowed never to do this to his children.
“That is correct, my son. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“You should have.” Mark turned to face forward again, keeping his eyes focused on his best friend, who was about to become much more.
“Seguir?” Pedro asked.
“Si,” Benjamin replied. “Let’s continue. Like I said, this is a reversal of the placing.”
Benjamin lowered his head and Pedro gently lifted the crown and almost floated it away and turned to where Alex stood before Mark. The four of them were close enough to one another that Pedro didn’t have to take even a step toward Alex, merely reached the crown forward and Alex awkwardly lifted it from Pedro’s hands and turned to Mark.
As Mark had seen his father do, he lowered his head slightly and Alex placed the crown on Mark’s head. The heavy gold didn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable as Mark feared it would. Similar to how the crown looked on his father, it seemed to fit as if it had been created just for him.
Mark was tempted to turn and look in the mirror but didn’t want to see himself in shorts and a t-shirt. This was almost disrespectful to the crown and all it represented to practice in such casual attire. He would take the time to view himself in a mirror later that evening while wearing a formal suitcoat.
“Now at the end of the evening, you will accompany Mark to his suite and remove his crown to place it in its box and then into its leather bag,” Benjamin said. “At that point, the bag will be tucked into a secluded location just inside his closet.”
“What if Alex is on vacation or something?” Mark asked.
“There will be very few times when you need to wear your crown,” his father explained. “Only during formal events and those are planned well in advance. The two of you will rarely be apart anyway. In a rare exception, you are allowed to remove your own crown.”
“Okay,” Mark said.
“Of course, once you’re married your wife will be trained how to perform this routine,” His father continued. “Usually at times when you are wearing your crown, she will also be wearing hers and you’ll remove hers for her. This is often an affectionate moment and the two of you will probably have a very romantic night after that.”
“Oh my gosh, dad, stop.” Mark felt his neck heat with embarrassment, and he shook his head, attempting to remove the thought that his father was describing relations with his mother. His thoughts then turned to Hazel and he didn’t dare even glance her way. “Can we just finish this practicing so I can go get ready for my grandfather’s funeral?”
“Alex, you can now remove Mark’s crown and place it in the velvet box.” Benjamin cleared his throat and got serious again. “You won’t do this until Mark is ready to remove his formal clothes later this evening. The crown will stay in place after the coronation through the formal reception.”
Mark leaned his head slightly forward and Alex carefully removed the crown, transferring it back to its box and lifting the box into the leather bag and nesting the smaller velvet box on top.
“Nicely done, gentlemen.” Benjamin stood and reached his hand out to Pedro, grasping him in a familial way, then turned to Alex and shook his hand as well. When he came to Mark, he gathered his son into his arms, and they held one another for a long time. Mark’s head almost rested on his dad’s shoulder like a little boy clinging to his daddy, which wasn’t far from the truth.
When they pulled away from one another, they looked each other in the eye, man to man.
“You are going to be an amazing leader,” Benjamin said. “Whether as King of Medain Saleh, or an upstanding citizen of your community. Be not afraid, my son.”
“Thanks, dad,” Mark said. Turning to face his friends he realized they’d all left the room, probably out of respect for their father and son moment.
“Go get dressed and gather those buddies of yours,” Benjamin said, patting Mark on the shoulder. “Let’s get ready for the funeral.”
Mark wasn’t ready to be awake, but he’d been told to shower and get to the breakfast table as soon as possible. The rest of the guys were already there and nearly finished with their eggs and chorizo with tortillas. Mark was looking forward to getting home so he could have a bowl of cereal.
A plate of food was placed in front of him and he dug in without complaint, his twenty-year-old body protesting the idea of sugary cereal in favor of substance. He was halfway through his meal when Hazel came stumbling downstairs and wandered into the dining room, flopping into the same chair she’d sat in the day before when they’d experienced the reading of the will.
None of the guys knew Hazel and Mark had been out late, lying under the stars, kissing and talking in the dew-covered grass. They probably didn’t notice either of them yawning. They didn’t know she was sending the diamond home with him.
Mark winked across the table at Hazel and the corners of her mouth pulled into the tiniest grin as she tore off a piece of a tortilla to scoop up a bite of eggs and chorizo.
When Hazel was almost done eating and all of them were sitting around talking, Mark’s dad strode into the room. “Mark, Hazel, and Alex, could I borrow the three of you for a little while?”
Noah and Drew had grown accustomed to being left to their own devices and had made good use of the pool, and game room, and surround sound theater style multi-media room.
As everyone pushed chairs back from the table, kitchen staff swooped in to remove dirty dishes and restore the dining room to its pristine state before it had been invaded by four hungry college boys and one sleepy teenage girl.
When his father escorted the three of them to his formal bedroom suite and Mark realized what they were about to do he wished he wasn’t wearing his shorts and t-shirt.
Pedro Hernandez stood near his father’s dressing table, upon which sat the leather bag that Mark knew held his crowns.
Mark stopped short and almost took a step back in panic, but Alex pushed him gently forward.
“I believe you’ve all met my advisor, Pedro,” Benjamin said, walking over to stand beside the man Mark had thought was his father’s butler. This made more sense because Pedro always seemed to be nearby. “He will be instructing Alexander in the proper way to place, remove, and store your crown.”
“Me?” Now it was Alex’s turn to take a step back in shock, but Hazel was conveniently behind him and similarly pushed him gently forward. “Why?”
“At the coronation this evening there will be a moment of symbolic transferring the crown from my advisor to Mark’s,” Benjamin explained. “As you and Mark have unknowingly chosen, before you even arrived in Puerto Aventuras, you will officially be given that right and privilege at the coronation.”
“What if I don’t want that job?” Alex asked.
“What if I don’t want him to be my advisor?” Mark asked.
“Can you think of anyone else in the world who you would like to be your advisor?” Benjamin patiently asked.
“No,” Mark whispered, his shoulders slumping. “Of course not.”
“Alexander?” Benjamin turned to Mark’s best friend. “Are you willing to take on this role and responsibility?”
Mark and Alex turned their heads toward each other and met one another’s gazes. Something shifted in Alex’s countenance. A confidence entered his expression and his eyes firmed with decision. “I would follow wherever he leads.”
“That doesn’t explain why I’m here,” Hazel said in a tiny, almost frightened voice.
“If the two of you marry, you will also need to be trained on the proper way to care for the crown, as well as to receive your own crown.”
“Mark?” Hazel almost sounded like she wanted to cry. “We talked about this.”
“I know—” Mark stepped over and pulled her into his arms, whispering down to her. “None of them know about our discussion last night.”
“But they all knew you were mad at me.” Her answer was barely a whisper, which was good because the conversation really needed to be just between Hazel and Mark. “And now they suddenly think I’m going to want that crown.”
“I think they’re all just hoping,” Mark whispered. “But we have all the time in the world to make those decisions. Just enjoy the pageantry today and we’ll worry about the crowns when we’re older. Okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed. This was their future and they needed to be the decision makers.
He pulled back and looked down at Hazel then lifted her chin gently with his finger and leaned down to place one tiny kiss on her lips, which she seemed to meet with a hint of desire for more.
Mark wondered if he’d messed up by allowing himself to get caught in that passionate make-out session the previous night. They’d awakened a desire for each other that might skew their decisions later on. He winked at her playfully and pulled away.
They were met with raised eyebrows and knowing smirks. Mark rolled his eyes, shook his head, and said, “Are we doing this? Or what?”
“My dearest grandson, I have asked your father to speak on my behalf at your coronation,” Mr. Alverez began reading again while everyone else at the table sat in shock. “Listen to your father’s words. Learn all you can from him while he is yet on this earth. Do not be a stubborn fool like I have been with my father. Learn all you can about our kingdom that you will be prepared if you are called upon to lead.
“I ask a special favor of you, he who was given my name. Take me home. I risked the lives of my wife and your father so that he might have been born within the boundaries of our kingdom. Now I ask that you return me to that soil from which I came.
“While you are there, taste of the water, the life source that keeps our kingdom on the map. For thousands of years our family has been the keepers of that water, an oasis in an otherwise destitute region of sand and wind. Once you have tasted the waters of Madain Saleh, you will understand.
“One more thing, tell my father that I’m sorry I never returned to say goodbye. Tell him I forgive him and ask him to please forgive me. Tell my nephew, Omar that I’ve never stopped loving him and that I still miss his father, my brother, Jared, the last official Crown Prince before the crown was contested. Get to know your cousins that when the time comes for King Sayid to join his sons in death, you will be ready to lead them.
“The remainder of my wishes you will learn from your father during your coronation. Thank you for coming so quickly to visit me. I wish I could have been there to watch you receive the crown. Wear it well and honor my name. All that I have is now yours. Most sincerely, Prince Marcos Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.”
Mr. Alverez completed the formal letter that grandfather had written by pronouncing the name of the kingdom in its ancient pronunciation, which meant grandfather must have written it that way. He was taking this seriously.
Mr. Alverez folded the parchment and slipped the note into an envelope and slid the envelope across the table. Mark lifted his hand and placed it on top of the cream-colored envelope, pulling the crisp paper until it rested directly in front of him.
“All that I have is now yours,” Mark whispered. “What exactly does he mean by that?”
Mr. Alverez opened a leather binder in which an official statement of worth sat ready to be passed from grandfather to grandson. The suspense in the room was palpable. Mark held his breath.
“Your Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid of Mada’in Saleh, your estate is now worth,” Mr. Alverez gulped and continued. “One billion, two million, nine hundred fifty-seven thousand… U.S. dollars.”
* * * * * * * * *
The brackish canal that sat undisturbed in the late evening calm was just out of reach of Mark’s bare feet. If he slid forward and reached his leg down the side of the embankment, he could probably dip his foot in the water, but that would be too much effort and he didn’t want to move.
Elegant lights from the mansions across the river sparkled gracefully but did little to block the myriad of stars that brightened the night sky.
Billions of stars.
Billions of dollars.
After the will had been read, Mark did some research and found that he wasn’t even close to the richest prince in the middle east. Most Saudi princes laid claim to several billion dollars. And royal families weren’t even that rich compared to some businessmen and tech gurus in the world.
He also remembered that the Cohen family was even wealthier than the Sayids. Hazel and Alex would never have to worry about money either, but they weren’t the only grandchildren. They didn’t stand to inherit the entirety of their grandfather’s estate.
Like Mark did. Like Mark had. The will was read. The money was his.
“Hey, Mark,” Hazel called softly from several yards behind him. “I didn’t want to sneak up on you and startle you.”
Mark leaned back, bracing his hands behind him in the dew-covered grass and lifted his chin to gaze up at the girl who had taken him on a roller coaster ride the past few days. She was wearing a colorful gypsy skirt again with a lightweight cardigan wrapped around her shoulders.
“Mind if I join you?” Without waiting for an answer, she lowered herself to the edge of the embankment and swung her bare feet over the edge similar to how Mark’s feet dangled, hovering a few inches above the water. Her short legs were more like a foot above the water.
He didn’t speak and neither did she. He wasn’t sure what to say, what to feel, what to do.
“I have a favor to ask,” Hazel finally whispered. Mark continued his silence while waiting for her to continue. “I’d like you to hold onto my diamond for safe keeping.”
Mark turned to her and gulped, not sure if he should be relieved or angry.
“I’m not saying I want to give the diamond back… not really. I mean, your grandfather gave it to me, and I would never insult him by refusing his gift. I just don’t have any place to store the diamond and I figured the safest place for that little velvet jewelry box is in that leather back with your crowns.”
Our crowns, Mark wanted to correct her but held his peace.
“If we someday decide to get married, that diamond will make a beautiful engagement ring, just like your mother’s.”
“You say ‘if’ like you have doubts that will ever happen.” Mark’s voice cracked from having sat alone and not speaking for so long.
“I like you, Mark. Probably too much for having just met you less than a week ago. But I’m not in love with you. And you’re not in love with me. I want you to have the chance to marry a woman you love. I don’t want our grandparents deciding who we should marry. It was fun to joke about, but marriage isn’t a joke. When I get married, I want it to be forever. Especially because when I get married, I’m giving away a gift that can never be taken back.”
“Who are you and what did you do with the snarky teenager I met a few days ago?” Mark asked.
“She grew up real fast when someone placed a crown on the table in front of her,” Hazel said. “I don’t want us to get excited about a fun spring break and let this week affect the plans we had for our futures.”
“Two weeks ago, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
“I don’t know. I like art. And music. I play the acoustic guitar and write poetry. Sometimes I smoke pot and lay on the floor of my bedroom watching the colorful lights from my lava lamp decorate my ceiling.”
“Seriously?” Mark wondered if she was joking but could picture her in that scenario, so he was prone to believe she was telling the truth.
“I wake up the next morning wondering why my ceiling is white again and then remember that I didn’t actually have a paintbrush in my hand the previous night.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to fall in love with you,” Mark said, completely in awe of this youthful dreamer who breezed into his life and flipped his world upside down.
Hazel let her head fall back so that her gaze lifted to the stars and her long hair reached for the grass, nearly touching the tops of the blades. Her whisper was barely audible, “What did you always want to be when you grew up?”
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Mark said, not sad or upset, just resigned. “I was born a prince. You can’t just shake that off and say, ‘I don’t think I wanna be a prince anymore.’ I’m a prince. Oh, and I’ve always been destined to be Crown Prince. Didn’t realize I’d be quite this young when that happened, but whatever.”
“No, but, if you’re weren’t born a prince?” Hazel said, turning her head to look at him instead of the stars. “You’re studying geospatial analytics, right? What kind of job could you get with that degree?”
“Well, I love flying drones and using aerial imagery to visualize what’s on the ground and evaluate what it means, and how best to utilize natural resources and plan for future land uses.”
“We’re a perfect team,” Hazel said, reverently, laying back onto the grass and gazing up at Mark. “I love to lie on the ground and imagine how the world above me could be brushed with color…”
“…and I like to view the world from above and imagine how the future could look.” Mark leaned over her and placed one hand on either side of her shoulders, lifting himself as if he were poised to do a series of pushups.
Without ever touching his body to hers, he used all the strength in his arms to lower himself down and kissed her lightly on her lips.
Knowing his arms wouldn’t support his weight indefinitely and not wanting to brazenly lie on top of her, Mark pushed himself to the side and laid on the grass next to her, propping himself on his elbow.
Hazel turned her face to him and whispered, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to fall in love with you too.”
Not wasting the moment, Mark kissed Hazel and didn’t stop kissing her for a very long time.
“Is it normal to have the reading of a will happen before the funeral?” Mark asked, settling at the table and pulling up his chair. The fine Mahogany shone with polished elegance from the reflection of the crystal chandelier directly above. He’d always loved his grandfather’s dining room.
“The will needs to be read in advance of the funeral because of the coronation,” Benjamin explained. “You’ll see why in a few minutes.”
“Why are Hazel and I invited but Noah and Drew aren’t?” Alex asked, sitting on Mark’s right.
“Only those named in the will should be in the room at the time it’s read.”
“We’re named in the will?” Hazel asked in a panicked voice that was almost a squeak. “Why?”
“You’ll see.” Benjamin smiled across the table at Hazel, then glanced at Mark.
Mark still wasn’t speaking to Hazel since she’d deceived him about her age. He was appalled at himself for inviting her into his bed. He was just glad he’d restrained his desire to take advantage of her close proximity and how tantalizing she smelled, and that adorable little nightgown. He ground his fingernails into his hands and chastised himself for even thinking those things.
“Let’s get started,” Mr. Alverez said, tapping the pages in his hands against the table. The family’s long-time attorney read through an endless list of incidentals, little trinkets grandfather had given to staff in his household and local community members, most of whom were not in the room. He’d even given a sacred bowl to some spiritual healer in a remote village in Guatemala. Mark fought the urge to yawn and eventually lost the battle. He tried to hide his yawn behind a cough.
Finally, they got down to more interesting items of business. Grandfather had deeded all his real and fixed property and businesses to Mark’s dad, Benjamin, along with two million dollars. Mark gulped, remembering that he’d been promised a large sum of money also. He wondered if he was about to become a millionaire, like his father just had. A twenty-year-old millionaire with a crown. He still couldn’t fathom any of it.
“Prince Marcos made some changes two days ago.” The words Mr. Alverez spoke caught everyone’s attention. He pulled from his briefcase two items and slid them carefully across the table. One was an envelope addressed to Alexander Stephenson, and the other was a small jewelry box for Hazel. “Don’t open those yet. I’ve been asked to read you the letter first.”
Alex lifted the envelope in his hand and turned it over twice. Hazel gathered the little box into her hands holding it like how she’d clutched her mug of tea when she’d sat on his bed. Mr. Alverez continued by pulling a folded letter out and reading aloud.
“My dearest Alexander, I’m grateful you and Marcos have found one another and become such good friends. Your grandfather and I have been best friends since early prep school and have treasured our relationship over our many years. Because you will be called upon to assist my grandson extensively, I want you to have a little seed money as a salary so that you won’t feel the need to seek outside employment. Having his most trusted advisor by his side will be a great support to Marcos and I wanted to thank you in advance for your service.” Mr. Alverez lifted his gaze from the letter and glanced at Alex. “At this time, His Highness requested that you open your envelope.”
“Okay…” Alex opened the envelope and slipped from within a check. “Two hundred thousand dollars? I can’t accept this.” He placed the check in front of him and pushed it away as if it were going to bite him. Without missing a beat or giving credit to Alex’s declaration that he wouldn’t take grandfather’s money, Mr. Alverez turned to Hazel and continued reading.
“My sweet Hazel. What joy it brings me to have you in my grandson’s life. The minute I saw the two of you standing a few feet apart, I knew you were destined to be together. Even if I am wrong in my prediction, I want you to keep this small token as a way of honoring my best friend’s granddaughter. If I’m right, you’ll understand the significance of the gift immediately. Regardless, please keep this stone safe. It is sacred in more ways then you’ll ever know. Most sincerely, Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh.” Mr. Alverez lifted his gaze and nodded toward the box.
Mark stretched his neck to better see the contents as Hazel slowly opened the jewelry box to reveal a single, sparkling diamond. It had to be at least two carats. Hazel’s jaw dropped, as did Mark’s and they gazed across the table at one another. He was shaking and sensed that she was also.
“Now for the important items,” Mr. Alverez said as he lifted a heavy leather bag and placed it on the table in front of him. “Are you ready for this?”
Mark gulped and shook his head then took a deep breath. “Maybe?”
“Benjamin,” Mr. Alverez addressed Mark’s dad. “You are currently the only person in this room allowed to open this satchel until after it has been transferred.” He slid the heavy leather bag closer to Benjamin and he opened it reverently.
Benjamin glanced at Mark. “My son, this will be conferred upon you tomorrow during the funeral, but I wanted you to see what it looks like and understand its majesty.”
With that, Benjamin reached inside and pulled out two velvet boxes, the smaller of which nested on top of the larger as if they were a matching set. Benjamin ceremoniously opened the larger velvet box to reveal an elegant crown of pure gold with dozens of inlaid jewels.
Mark marveled at its beauty and could almost feel the weight resting on his head. For the first time since being told he would be named Crown, the magnitude hit him firmly in the chest and a peace came over him.
The smaller velvet box was opened to reveal a smaller, more feminine version of the first. A gold band with inlaid jewels. A crown befitting a princess. Mark met Hazel’s gaze across the table and knew she must have been thinking the same thing he was. The second crown was for her.
“Prepare yourself,” Benjamin mumbled as he turned the smaller crown, so the back was visible. “This was removed by your grandfather the evening before he passed.”
Hazel must have noticed the missing stone at the same time as Mark because they both gasped. There, tucked within a nest of other jewels was one empty spot where a two-carat diamond would fit perfectly.
Benjamin turned the crown another quarter turn to reveal a second missing stone and Mark creased his brow. “Your mother has that one.”
Everyone at the table glanced over to where Princess Nisha Sayid, Mark’s beautiful mother, sat with her hands resting primly in front of her on the table, her left hand over her right, displaying an elegant double-banded wedding ring complete with a two-carat diamond sparkling in the light of the chandelier. Again, Mark and Hazel gasped.
Mark was reminded that Nicholas Cohen had stated he didn’t believe in arranged marriages, yet here they sat with a clear message. Hazel and Mark had very little say in the matter. Their families had already decided. They were to be married whether they liked each other or not, whether they distrusted one another, whether they were too far apart in age.
Hazel glanced down at the still-opened jewelry box on the table in front of her, and Mark watched a single tear fall down her cheek.
Mark was startled awake to a soft knock on his door and pulled himself out from under Hazel’s body draped across his. How’d that happen? He had no idea what time it was, but the knocking came again, and he rubbed his eyes as he padded across the marble floor in his bare feet.
“Hey, Alex,” Mark said as he pulled the door open. “And dad… and Mr. Cohen.” Crap. He knew how this must look. Hazel’s grandpa was at his door and Hazel was in his bed. Well, on his bed, but still. Not cool.
“Oh good, you’re both here,” Benjamin said as he pushed all the way into the room. Mark couldn’t determine if that was sarcasm or relief. “We won’t have to hunt her down.”
Hazel sat up and stretched, shaking her head to wake herself up.
“We weren’t doing anything, I swear.” Mark held up his hands as if there was a proverbial shotgun to his head. “We were just talking and sort of fell asleep.”
“I trust you, son.” Benjamin waved his hand dismissively.
“I don’t,” Mr. Cohen said. “But you’re dressed, uh, sort of, and you lost your grandfather today so I’m going to offer you some slack. Just, put on a shirt. Okay?”
Mark reached into his open suitcase, grabbed a clean t-shirt and slipped it over his head.
“We need all three of you to stay awake long enough for us to explain some things,” Benjamin said.
“All three of us?” Mark looked over at Alex who shrugged.
“They didn’t tell me anything,” Alex said. “Just asked me to come with them.”
“Okay, where do we start?” Benjamin paced back and forth, pulling his hair with both hands. Mark wondered if he’d grown delirious after the long day of dealing with the loss of his father and planning a funeral.
“Maybe I should be the one to tell this story,” Nicholas Cohen suggested. “Why don’t you kids sit down.”
Alex sat on the only chair, which left Mark with his bed. He sat near the foot of his bed as far away from Hazel as he could without making it obvious he was trying to sit as far away as he could.
“I don’t believe in arranged marriages, but the two of you together would make both our families very happy.”
“We are totally fine with that,” Mark said with an alarming level of sincerity. Hazel giggled from the other side of the bed and Mark gave her a sidelong scowl before fighting a tiny smirk.
“She needs to grow up first,” Nicholas said sternly. “You’re not marrying a seventeen-year-old high school senior.”
“Seventeen?” Mark jumped up and glared at Hazel. “I thought you were a college student!”
“I never actually came out and said that,” she retorted. “You just assumed.”
“If I’d known you were seventeen, I wouldn’t have had you in my bed!”
“You shouldn’t have had her in your bed to begin with, son.” Benjamin raised his eyebrows.
“Two consenting adults are allowed to sleep together,” Mark said. “I didn’t know she was not an adult.” Mark pointed over at her in exasperation.
This day just kept throwing one surprise after another. And Dad and Nicholas still hadn’t told them what they came in the room to tell them.
“Sit back down, son. You can talk about all that later. This is more important.”
“More important than me sleeping with a seventeen-year-old?” Mark grumbled as he made his way back over to his bed. He threw a disappointed scowl toward Hazel and sighed, settling in to prepare himself for whatever this next curveball would be.
“First things first,” Nicholas said, gazing over at Alex with a look that could only be described as pure love and affection combined with something else… regret? “Alex, you look just like your mother.”
Alex’s jaw dropped. From what little Mark knew about his best friend’s family, his mother had died when he was very young, and his father struggled to raise him as a single dad on a professor’s salary. The only reason Alex attended North Carolina State University was because his dad taught there. Alex’s dad and Mark’s dad had been a little less than friends, but a little more than acquaintances, almost like they were expected to be friends by some unseen bond.
Because Mark spent most of his childhood travelling back and forth between Mexico and North Carolina, his only close friends were the ones who met up at the basketball court in the center of their middle-class neighborhood. He and Alex had a knack for a cool alley-oop move that made other teams unable to complete.
Any time either of them got the ball on defense, they would both hightail it down the court, bounce pass a couple times just for fun, then Alex would leap toward the hoop and drop the ball at the last second. Mark would grab the ball, dunk it, and hold on to the rim.
They were never able to use the move in a real competition because Mark was homeschooled. Alex was always starting point guard at his high school, but never had that strong of a connection with any of his teammates.
Mark always suspected their parents had pulled strings to get them together as college roommates but neither of them had come right out and questioned it. The message was, “Guess what? Your old buddy Alex needs a roommate and you two would be great together.”
“How did you know my mom?” Alex asked with hesitancy, looking up at the charismatic powerhouse of a man who was Nicholas Cohen.
“She was my daughter,” Nicholas said quietly. All three kids sucked in a gasp of air. “You’re my grandson.”
“Alexandria fell in love with your father when he was here on spring break and within six months they were engaged, and she moved to the States. You were born less than a year later.”
“Why hasn’t anyone told me about this until now?”
“Your father didn’t want to take handouts from his deceased wife’s rich family and wanted to raise you as a normal kid. We agreed that was a good idea and took comfort that Benjamin also wanted to raise his son, Mark, as a normal kid. You two had coincidently been born within a few weeks of each other.”
“But I wasn’t raised as a normal kid,” Mark said. “I was a geeky homeschooled kid who spent half the year in Mexico, living in a palace surrounded by royalty, and half the year in the States living in middle-class America.”
“That was a pretty good way to grow up, if you think about it, son,” Benjamin said. “You had the best of both worlds. The knowledge you were a prince but the humble environment of life as a commoner.”
“I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way.” Mark’s shoulders slumped.
“We left it up to you to tell your friends about your life in Mexico if you chose to, and apparently you never did, or Alex wouldn’t have been surprised when you told him.”
“Wait,” Hazel interjected. “Does that mean Alex and I are… cousins?”
“That’s exactly what it means.” Nicholas nodded with a smile.
“Gee, glad I fell for Mark and not you.” Hazel and Alex wrinkled their noses at each other and chuckled.
“There’s so much more we need to tell you within the next couple of days, because your lives are about to intertwine in ways neither family could have predicted,” Benjamin said. “But I’m exhausted. My father died today, and I need sleep so I can finish planning his funeral. You’ll learn more over the next few days. Get some rest you guys.”
“You are coming with me, young lady,” Nicholas said, pointing to Hazel. “You’re not sleeping with the prince until he puts a wedding ring on your hand.”
“Like that’s gonna happen,” Mark said, furrowing his brows and pulling his gaze away from the girl he’d kissed a few hours ago and held in his arms, and fell asleep next to. He grumbled, “I’m not marrying her. Seventeen? She should have been honest with me.”
Who was he trying to convince? Himself? Or everyone else? He heard someone chuckle as they left the room. His dad? Maybe.
When the door finally closed, Mark felt her absence immediately. He fell back onto his bed and stared at the ceiling. If this life was a dream, he wanted to wake up.
Instead, he fell asleep. Hard.
A soft knock at the door interrupted Mark’s inner contemplation as he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror of his childhood bedroom suite. He was trying to visualize how he would look with a crown on his head. All he could see was an old man because he always thought he’d have grey hair and grandchildren before taking on this responsibility.
He ran his hand over his shaggy wet hair and headed for the door. His lightweight summer pajama bottoms were his only clothes on this tropical evening. It didn’t occur to him to cover his bare chest until he opened his bedroom door to Hazel standing there with two steaming mugs of herbal tea.
Her jaw dropped as she looked him up and down and let out a low whistle. “Dang, and I thought you looked good in swim trunks and a tank top.”
A tiny smirk lifted the corners of his mouth as he reached out for one of the mugs. He placed a kiss on her cheek and whispered, “Right back at ya.”
The light blue baby doll pajamas fit her personality perfectly. He couldn’t understand why she tried the pretense of being a tough girl when he first met her. She was femininity personified and radiated confidence and vulnerability simultaneously.
Mark sipped his mint tea and wished for a cold beverage instead. But she promised something to ease his upset stomach and apparently this was the cure for whatever ailed him. Sorrow, overwhelm, trepidation, fear, and excitement all wrapped into one. He took another sip and set it down on his bedside table.
He wasn’t really nervous having her climb onto his bed and sit cross legged facing him, her mug held tightly between her hands and her hair in wet French braids. He propped himself on several pillows and leaned against his headboard. “Big day, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m not even sure what to think.” Hazel took a sip of her tea. “What did your dad say that had you so flustered?”
“That guy he was talking to is our attorney,” Mark said. “He’ll be the one reading the will and apparently I’m slated to inherit a small fortune.”
“And that upset you?”
“It’s just a lot to take in, ya know?” Mark leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. “I just want to mourn the loss of my grandpa without all this other crap.”
“I’ve never really lost a family member, so I’ve never had to go through this.”
“Can I marry you?” Mark asked suddenly. “I mean, in a few years. Not right now. We should probably finish college first.”
“What if we don’t like each other in a few years?” She bit her lips as if trying to keep from smiling.
“Uh… well, then you’d be unhappily married to an incredibly rich prince and you can divorce me, take half my money, demand that I name you queen, and have me banished from my own kingdom.”
“That sounds fun.” She giggled an adorable giggle and Mark wished he could pull her into his arms. Oh, what the heck.
Mark leaned forward and lifted Hazel’s mug of tea then set it next to his on the bedside table. Then he pulled her forward and gathered her into the crook of his arm resting her head on his shoulder. He inhaled deeply the rich scent of her shampoo or body wash or lotion.
“You smell really good,” Hazel whispered.
“I was just thinking the same thing about you,” his husky whisper answered her.
“I wish we were married, and I could just fall asleep right here in your arms.” Her voice was sleepy, and he wondered if she would indeed fall asleep in his arms.
“If we were married this cute little nighty would be on the floor beside our bed.” That was a stupid thought to vocalize. Now it was all he could think about. Her body stilled at the implication of his words. Maybe they should fall asleep. He wouldn’t be thinking impure thoughts about her if he wasn’t conscious. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Hazel relaxed into his arms again. “I want you to feel like you can tell me anything.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll tell you how I feel, holding you like this.” Mark yawned and snuggled a little closer. “I promised I’d wait until we were married. But I didn’t specify a date for our wedding. We could get married sooner rather than later. I could move up to the D.C. area and we could get a little apartment. My college credits would probably transfer, and we could sleep in each other’s arms every night.”
“That sounds wonderful…” Hazel’s sleepy voice drifted off and he kissed her forehead, wishing he could do more. Her breathing evened out and he rested his head against hers, letting his eyes close.
“I packaged up your food,” Mark said quietly, trying to hand the box to Hazel. She sat in the far corner of the limousine with her arms folded and a scowl on her face. He set the box beside her on the seat and sat across from her so he could keep his gaze on her, hoping she’d look up and see his remorse. She didn’t.
The cool interior of the air-conditioned limousine was a stark contrast to the tropical heat and felt good for about two minutes. Mark could see that Hazel was shivering and he wanted to wrap his arms around her. Instead he tossed her the sweatshirt he’d brought with him in case it got cool later that evening.
Without a word of thanks, Hazel pulled the sweatshirt over her head and lifted the hood, effectively hiding from the rest of them.
The ride back to the mansion was quiet. Mark had laid into the guys as soon as Hazel had stormed away. Creating the wager in the first place was bad enough. Claiming winner in front of Hazel was uncalled for. He just hoped they hadn’t ruined his chances with her.
When they pulled into the circle drive, there were several more cars than had been there in the morning. Mark knew his grandfather was a well-loved member of their community and word had probably gotten around that he was sick. There would likely be a steady stream of visitors the whole time they were in Mexico.
Stepping into the grand foyer of the stately home was like walking into a funeral visitation. Little groups of three or four people huddled together, some with tissues dabbing at their eyes.
Mark’s mother glanced their way from one of those little huddled groups and her countenance was all Mark needed to learn the truth. The pity in her eyes. The way her brow creased and how she bit her lower lip. She squeezed the hand of the lady at her side and stepped away from her friends.
“Oh, Marcos, I’m so sorry.” She wrapped her arms around him, and he stood stiffly, no longer seeing the people in the room. His vision blurred and when a tear slipped down his cheek, he lowered his face close to his mom’s and leaned against her for support, simultaneously hiding his emotions from everyone else in the foyer.
He pulled his mom into his arms and held on, not wanting to even ask the question to which he already knew the answer. Instead he deflected. “Is dad okay?”
“You know your father,” Mom said. “He’s all business. Taking care of arrangements, making all the right phone calls, answering all the necessary questions. Planning, planning, planning.”
“Yeah, that sounds like him.” Mark chuckled lightly, pulling away from his mom and reaching up to dry the few tears that had escaped. He’d promised grandpa he wouldn’t waste any more time crying and mourning. He spent the day doing all the things grandpa would have wanted him to do.
Heck, he’d even kissed Hazel Cohen. His grandpa would be proud. That brought a soft smile to his face and he was tempted to turn around and search for Hazel in the small crowd behind him. But he didn’t. He couldn’t bear the thought of her continued anger.
Instead, he pushed gently past his mom to where he could see his dad in the next room talking to an official looking man with a leather binder and a three-piece suite. When Benjamin noticed Mark walking toward him, he barely excused himself from the audience with the other man and met Mark halfway across the room.
“Oh, my son,” Dad whispered as they held each other firmly. Neither of them cried. They just held each other. They were the same height now. Grown men. Equals. Never before had Mark felt so close to his father. In that moment he realized what this must be like for his dad, having just lost his own father.
“I’m sorry for your loss, dad.” Mark squeezed his dad just a little tighter. “Do me a favor. Don’t die anytime soon because I don’t think I’m as strong as you are.”
They pulled away slightly and looked one another in the eye. “You’d be surprised how much weight you’re able to bear at the time you’re needed.”
“I’ll take your word for it, okay?”
“Sure.” Benjamin patted Mark on his shoulder, then pulled his arm gently. “Come, I want you to meet our attorney, Fernando Alverez. He’s been handling our affairs for a while and will be conducting the reading of the will.”
“Good evening, Mr. Alverez,” Mark said respectively, reaching out his hand.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Marcos. Your father and grandfather speak highly of you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m going to assume that you’ll be settling your finances in the States, but I want you to know I’m always here for you if you have any questions or need advice.”
“Advice about what?” Mark creased his brow and glanced between his father and Mr. Alverez.
“About your inheritance,” the attorney said, like it should have been obvious. “I know it’s a lot to take in. Most people don’t inherit quite this much money all at once, but your grandfather’s wishes were quite clear. He wants you to have it all now.”
“How much is… all?”
“Well, we’ll evaluate the final dollar amounts at the reading of the will the day after tomorrow, but it’s… a lot.”
“Don’t worry, son, we’ll help you get it all transferred and set up in the correct investment funds. We’ll do the best we can to protect it from inheritance taxes and the likes. You won’t have to do this alone.”
“First a crown, now an inheritance? What else are you going to tell me? Are there any other secrets I should know about?”
“Yes… but we should discuss it in private.”
“Oh great, because telling me I’m about to have a crown and a fortune dropped on my head is public knowledge.” Mark turned in a circle with his arms wide, raising his voice. “Everyone else seems to know my business. Why hide anything now?”
“Son calm down. We’re all mourning, and this is not the time or place. Let’s just get through planning the funeral and you and I can talk later tonight. Okay?”
“Whatever.” Mark stormed from the room. He wished he could go back in time to when life was as easy as walking on the beach with a pretty girl.
The grand foyer where more than a dozen people still congregated felt crowded and stifling. His three best friends stood just inside the door wearing their sandy beach clothes and forlorn faces. Alex had his arm around Hazel’s shoulder, and she looked like a scared little girl standing there in his oversized sweatshirt over her swimsuit and holding a Styrofoam box full of tamales.
Hazel took a step forward and met Mark in a hug. “I’m so sorry.”
“Let’s talk in a little while okay?” He wrapped her tiny frame in his big arms and kissed the top of her head. “I need a shower. Get this sand off me. And I possibly may need to throw up.”
She chuckled and looked up at him with a soft smile. “Yes to the shower, no to the puking, and I’ll bring you a cup of mint tea in a little while.”
“Deal.” He winked at her and then stepped over to his friends. He gave Noah and Drew each a side hug slash hand shake then pulled Alex into his arms and held him for several long seconds. “Thanks for being here with me guys.”
“Of course,” Drew mumbled.
“Let us know if there’s anything you need, man,” Noah said.
Alex just squeezed a little tighter before releasing Mark and they stepped away from each other.
“Guys, find some aloe or something,” Mark said. “You’re burnt to a crisp.”
“I’ve got just the thing,” Mark’s mom, Nisha, interrupted. “You boys get showered and I’ll bring up some salve.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Alex answered Nisha as the three guys trudged up the stairs.
“Thanks, Mamma,” Mark said, reverting back to his youth and wishing he could turn back time. “I’m going to get a shower too. Love you.”
“Love you too son.”
“We need food!” Noah called out to Mark from down the beach.
“Translation, we need money!” Drew hollered.
Mark cupped his hands around his mouth to avoid yelling in Hazel’s ears. “Come get it!”
“How late is it?” Hazel asked. They had made their way quite far down the coastline for no other reason than to walk and talk and become friends. There had been less playful flirting and more meaningful, comfortable conversation.
Neither of them was wearing a watch, and they’d left their cell phones in the car since they were going to be in and out of the water. All Mark had with him was the credit card he’d used to pay for their lessons tucked in a secure pocket of his swim trunks. He pulled the card out and waited for the guys to trudge through the powdery sand.
They looked exhausted.
Mark was glad he had spent the afternoon collecting seashells and driftwood with Hazel rather than kiteboarding. The guys were sunburnt, sweaty, and heavy as if they could barely hold up their arms or put one leg in front of the other.
“Did you guys eat already?” Alex called when they were only a few yards away.
“Yeah, we had burritos and lemonade a few hours ago,” Mark said.
“Oh, that sounds so good,” Drew groaned. “I’m starving.”
“I’m kinda hungry again too,” Hazel said with a sheepish grin. “Can we maybe go with them to eat.”
“Sure,” Mark said, reaching for her hand. “I’m a college guy. I could eat twenty-four-seven.”
“If you guys were going to come with us then why did we trudge all the way over here?” Noah asked, turning back toward the main beach.
Everyone followed Noah, but Drew fell into step beside Mark and stage-whispered, “Did you kiss her yet?”
“Dude, no!” Mark pushed Drew away and he promptly fell to the sand, cursing as he went down.
Hazel turned around and walked backward as she called out to Drew, “He wants to kiss me, if that makes you feel any better.”
Drew scrambled to his feet and hurried to catch up. “Really?”
“Yeah, and he got to watch me take off my clothes.”
Drew, Noah, and Alex all stopped short and turned to where Hazel was still walking backward without letting go of Mark’s hand.
“What?” Alex asked, speaking on behalf of their collective jaw gaping expressions.
“Seriously, babe, you had to go there?” Mark felt his neck heat up and it wasn’t from the sun.
Hazel just blinked innocent eyes at him, a tiny grin playing at the corners of her mouth.
“She did not remove her clothes,” Mark explained to the other guys. “She pulled the straps of her swimsuit down off her shoulders.”
“Eh, semantics, you were so embarrassed your face was as red as Noah’s back.”
“I was not embarrassed,” Mark said as they resumed walking and Hazel turned around again so she was facing forward and coincidently all three other guys were now walking backward still dumbfounded by this turn in conversation.
“Let me get this straight, you took part of your swimsuit off in front of Mr. Virgin, himself?” Drew asked.
“Mister Virgin?” Hazel stopped short and turned to him with a teasing expression of disbelief. “Do they seriously call you that?”
“Geesh, I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m waiting for marriage, okay?” Mark pushed past all of them and kept walking toward the main beach.
Hazel hurried to catch up and wrapped both hands around his arm, pulling him close. “We were just teasing you. Don’t be so sensitive. I think it’s great that you’re waiting. Most guys don’t.” She made a show of glaring at the three guys following them, correctly assuming they weren’t living up to Mark’s nickname.
Mark suspected Alex hadn’t done anything he’d be embarrassed to talk about in front of his grandma, but he wasn’t standing up and declaring his moral values, either.
Noah and Drew had made it their life’s mission to tease Mark relentlessly about his commitment to stay chaste until marriage, and the nickname they’d given him was just another jab. Mark didn’t care. He knew what his father expected of him, and what his grandfather expected of him, and he was determined to live up to their legacy.
Suddenly, Hazel stopped short and pulled Mark off to the side. “You guys go on ahead. We’ll catch up. I wanna talk to Mark for a minute.”
“Give me that credit card first,” Noah said, holding out his hand. “Who knows how long you two will talk.”
Mark pulled the card from his pocket but turned away from Noah. “I don’t trust you, Noah. Alex can pay for the food. I want nachos.”
“I want tamales,” Hazel said as Mark handed his credit card to Alex.
They waited until the guys were out of hearing range then Mark asked, “What did you want to talk to me about.”
“I just wanted to clear something up,” Hazel said, meeting his gaze with no embarrassment. “I’m glad you’re waiting… because I’m waiting too.”
“Really?” Marcos raised his eyebrows, a grateful peace entering his heart. “After the way you teased me… I wondered.”
“I figured,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to tell you, because I don’t want you to think I’m that kind of girl. I’m not.”
Mark pulled Hazel closer into his arms, and offered a chaste hug, ignoring how little of her skin was covered by her swimsuit. While he held her, Mark offered a quiet suggestion. “We could wait together.”
Hazel pulled back but kept her arms around him, looking up into his eyes. “I’d like that.”
He hesitated barely a second but felt the time was right. “Ya think I could have that kiss now?”
She nodded slowly and then reached onto her toes, lifting her face to his. He met her halfway in a soft kiss. Not too passionate, but definitely more than a peck. A nice, easy first kiss, filled with possibility and the recognition that taking their time was a good idea. Life was too short to rush through the good parts.
Mark winked down at her and grinned. “Wanna share a virgin pina colada with me?”
“Heck yeah, let’s go.” Hazel grabbed his hand and together they dragged their feet through the sand up the beach toward the cabana where the guys were already gathered around a table.
“You owe me a hundred bucks, Your Highness,” Drew said as Mark and Hazel sat down and reached across the table for their food.
Mark held up his hand to get the attention of the restaurant owner. He called out to the gentleman, “Could we get a virgin pina colada with two straws?” The guy nodded and Mark turned back around to face the table and dig into his food.
“So, you’re stickin’ with the whole virgin theme tonight, huh?” Noah asked. He picked up one of three large burritos on the plate in front of him.
“Hazel likes me this way,” Mark said confidently then lifted Hazel’s hand and placed a kiss on the back.
“Yes, we all noticed just how much she likes you from that little kiss you gave her,” Noah said. “And I do mean little.” He took a large bite of his burrito.
“I don’t kiss and tell.” Mark selected a crispy tortilla chip loaded with chili and cheese and salsa and lettuce.
“You didn’t have to tell anybody anything,” Alex said. “I’m pretty sure the whole beach saw you kiss her.”
“Yes, I’m sure I’m one of three people in the whole world who has met a girl during spring break and kissed her while standing on a beach. How scandalous.”
Hazel giggled at Mark’s words. “And it doesn’t have to be a big kiss to count as a kiss.”
“Which is why he owes me a hundred bucks,” Drew pointed out. “A kiss is a kiss no matter how big or small.”
“I don’t have my wallet with me,” Mark said. “You’ll have to wait until later.”
“Why are you giving him a hundred dollars?” Hazel asked, unrolling her second tamale and dousing it in hot sauce.
“Because I won the bet.” Drew spoke so matter-of-factly that there was an implied duh at the end of his sentence.
“What bet?” Hazel set down her fork and looked around the table, lastly at Mark.
“Whether or not Mark would kiss you before we made it back to America,” Noah said.
“You… bet… whether or not I’d kiss you?” Hazel’s words were cold and disgusted.
“Not me!” Mark held up his hands in surrender. “They laid wagers because Noah said you hated me, and Drew said you liked me.”
“No,” Alex piped in. “I was the one who said she liked you, and then Noah asked if I wanted to bet and I told him I’m not a gambler, but Drew said he’d take the bet.”
Hazel’s arms were crossed over her chest and her eyes were cold and firm. She spoke through clenched teeth. “So why are you paying the hundred dollars.”
“They decided I was the only one who had that kind of money available. So, I was the one who should have to pay.”
“Just the fact that you were all involved in this little wager makes me sick,” Hazel said. “These are my emotions we’re talking about. I was starting to have feelings for you.”
Hazel pushed her food away and stood from her chair.
“Tell your driver to take me back. I don’t want to be with you guys a minute more.” Hazel spun on her heel and walked toward the parking lot. She didn’t look back.
Before starting to eat, Hazel wriggled her bikini straps back up onto her shoulders and Mark was finally able to relax and look in her direction again. They ate in silence for a few minutes.
“Remind me what you’re studying at North Carolina State,” Hazel asked. “Are you a frat guy? Or a geek?”
“Am I allowed to be both?” Mark asked, taking a drink of his lemonade to wash down the bite of his burrito before completing his answer.
“No, trust me, you’re either one or the other,” she said. “And based on the way you freaked out when I exposed part of my chest, I’m guessing you’re a geek.”
“I’m studying geospatial analytics.” Mark waited for the jabs.
“See, you’re a geek.” Her assessment had been spot-on. “A really hot geek. But still a geek.”
“I’m not sure if that was meant to be a compliment or not, but I’ll take it.” Mark shoved the last bite of burrito in his mouth, realized his food had been the equivalent of an appetizer, and raised his hand to get the attention of the restaurant owner and held up a finger requesting another. “What about you? What are you studying?”
“I’m undecided,” she said with a dismissive tone.
“Just getting the basics out of the way?”
“Sure, you could look at it that way.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mark asked.
“A princess.” She bit her lower lip in a teasing grin.
“Hey, I can help you out with that. I could be your tutor.”
“I’d have the hottest, geekiest tutor on the planet,” she said.
“With the most beautiful babies,” he teased right back.
“See, you totally understand.”
“Where do you want to live?”
“In a big house on a hill overlooking a waterfall.”
“I’ll start shopping for just the right hill, and you start shopping for a wedding dress.”
“Sounds like a plan.” She held up her paper cup of lemonade for a toast and then sipped through her straw.
Mark’s eyes were drawn to her lips, but he pushed the thought aside. If they ever had a first kiss, he wouldn’t let that be while his mouth tasted like burritos. There was plenty of time.
As if sensing the change in mood, Hazel said quietly, “Thanks for rescuing me. I thought my arms were going to rip out of their sockets.”
“No problem.” Mark’s voice was husky.
“You can go try again if you want. I don’t mind sitting here by myself.”
“I have the rest of my life to learn how to kiteboard. But I only have a few days of spring break with the undivided attention of the beautiful and feisty Hazel Marie Cohen.”
“How’d you learn my middle name?”
“I have connections.”
“I bet you do.”
“Wanna go for a walk on the beach with a hot, geeky prince?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Mark stood and pulled out Hazel’s chair then took her hand confidently, and they casually strolled near the water for the rest of the afternoon, picking up seashells and planning their future.