“I’d say it’s time you two made this legal,” Mark said, quietly, nodding to the sleeping girl draped across Alex. Mark was crouched beside their chair and had jostled Alex awake.
“That would be wonderful, thank you.” Alex yawned, noting the hint of sunshine peeking around the shuttered windows. “Got a magistrate on board?”
“I’m fresh out of magistrates,” Mark said. “Sorry.”
“What time is it?” Alex cleared his throat, wondering how long he could lay still enough for Krystina to remain asleep before he needed either caffeine or a bathroom, probably both.
“No idea the local time but we’ve been on the plane about eighteen hours,” Mark said. “I want to attempt a shower in that tiny bathroom, then it’s your turn. We need to have a quick teleconference with the king and Prince Omar before we land, and I want to arrive wearing a crown.”
“Full? Or partial?”
“Partial,” Mark said. “No need to antagonize anyone immediately upon arrival.”
“Save that for later in the day?” Alex raised his eyebrows, knowing Mark was right. Mark’s full crown was the crown that was symbolic of King Sayid’s successor, and that was widely known.
“We probably won’t have any grand reception like last time,” Mark said. “Just a subdued meal introducing our wives to the rest of the royal family and a quiet evening spent in remembrance of Prince Jared. I’m not sure how many of them were involved in the murder plot so we’ll just assume they’re all guilty and go from there.”
“Why is it you and I are involved in solving murders on two continents?” Alex asked, wishing he were joking. “Do you think anyone’s going to question whether or not Krystina and I are married? I hadn’t thought of that before inviting her along.”
“There are so many affairs barely concealed in this royal family, I don’t think anyone would care.” Mark stood and shook out his legs. “Anyway, I’ll let you know when I’m done in the shower. Try to disentangle yourself from your future wife sometime between now and then.”
“You’re such a tyrant, Your Highness,” Alex said with a sleepy smile, snuggling back into seat and closing his eyes, hoping to treasure a few more minutes with Krystina in his arms.
She stretched a little then settled back into sleep with a soft sigh and resumed breathing evenly. Yeah, he could get used to this. Within seconds he was back to sleep.
Hazel only threw up once on the helicopter south to the airport, and twice on the plane during take-off and when they hit some turbulence. Her incapacity while flying allowed Alex and Krystina the perfect opportunity to entertain a baby and a toddler in the enclosed space of the private jet with very little in the way of entertainment.
Alex donned headphones with Aaron to watch a Disney movie and lounged in the opulent leather seats. They both fell asleep within twenty minutes. He awoke several hours later to find Krystina snuggling baby Owen, who was eight months of pure boy under normal conditions.
“How did you get him so calm and serene?” Alex asked with a yawn. “And where are Mark and Hazel?”
“I’ve been singing to him.” Krystina poked little Owen on the tip of his nose, and he wrinkled his face then stretched and settled into her arms with a sleepy sigh. “Hazel threw up again and Mark took her into the bedroom to see if he could get her to fall asleep if he held her in their bed rather than try to sleep in an airplane seat.”
“Yeah, as luxurious as these seats are compared to a normal airplane, nothing’s comfortable when you’re six months pregnant,” Alex said then smiled at his girlfriend. “Look at you, baby whisperer. He’s almost asleep.”
“Do you think there’s a crib or pack and play or something around here?” Krystina glanced around. “My arms are going to fall off if I try to hold him all night.”
“I think that’s why they brought the car seat,” Alex said, pointing over to the other side of the cabin. “It’s already latched onto one of the airplane seats—with complete disregard for the fine leather—so we can lay him in there and strap him in.”
“I’m sure they can afford to replace the leather.” Krystina leaned forward and Alex scooped little Owen from her arms into his and carried him over to where the car seat waited. Krystina helped him wriggle the sleeping baby into the straps, barely containing her laughter at their inability to care for one child with both of them helping. “How many adults does it take to strap a baby into a car seat?”
“Apparently more than two.” Alex chuckled as they finally got the little guy comfortable and settled. They stood side-by-side gazing down at their accomplishment. He held up his hand to her for a high five. “I hope these things come with instruction manuals or you and I are in trouble.”
“Car seats?” Krystina raised her eyebrows and snickered. “Of course, they do.”
“No,” Alex said, taking Krystina’s hand. “Babies.”
“Come on, let’s you and I find someplace to sleep.” He pulled her away from Mark and Hazel’s baby with a seductive wiggle of his eyebrows.
“I don’t think there are two bedrooms on this private jet.” Krystina giggled again. “Besides, I don’t want our first time to be on an airplane with zero privacy hoping we don’t wake two sleeping babies, one sick princess, and a very perceptive crown prince.”
“Oh, honey, our first time will be on our wedding night,” Alex assured her. “And I promise we will have privacy.”
She made a show of wiping her brow and exaggerated, “Phew, good thing. I was worried for a minute there.” Her playful grin told a different story.
“That’s not to say we can’t snuggle on one of these leather chairs.” Alex leaned close to her ear. “They recline into beds and are definitely big enough for two.”
“I’m game,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
I bet you are, he thought. If her bedroom eyes were any indication, Alex had little doubt she would be up for anything he suggested. If he was willing to compromise her virtue, she would be in his bed faster than he could invite her. For now, she’d have to be satisfied with snuggling.
Alex sat in one of the seats far enough away from the boys to not awaken them with conversation but close enough to see them both in case they woke up. Using the electronic lever, he lowered the seat back as far as it would go and opened his arms for her to join him.
Krystina grabbed one of the blankets on board the luxury jet and climbed onto the seat, sort of beside Alex but mostly on top of him. Alex couldn’t stop the grin on his face. This was as close as he could come to sleeping with her without actually sleeping with her.
Who was he kidding? He was about to sleep with her in his arms. Did that count as sleeping together? Maybe.
Intimacy was such a strange concept anyway. In a way, having her in his arms was just as intimate with or without clothes. He was going to treasure this tiny moment of time together before they had to pretend to be responsible adults again tomorrow.
He didn’t dare kiss her or allow himself to think of their future nights together once they were married. He knew neither of them would want to stop at kissing. Instead he tucked her into his arms, pulled the blanket around them, and sighed with contentment, allowing the hum of the jet engines lull him to sleep.
“Murdered?” Alex felt panic crush his chest. “Prince Eli?”
“No, his brother, Jared.”
Alex let out a sigh of relief. Not that he reveled in anyone’s death, but Eli was special. “Who would want to murder Jared?”
Even as the words left his mouth, Alex couldn’t help listing several people in his mind. The guy was a jerk.
“Well I don’t know how many people were involved in the murder plot, but I know who plunged the dagger,” Mark said. “Prince Omar’s advisor.”
“As a wedding present the night he married the Princess of Linah.”
“What?” Alex sat down hard on the nearby chair. He couldn’t wrap his brain around any of this. “Isn’t he old enough to be her grandfather?” And having an affair with her great- grandmother. Alex didn’t vocalize that remembrance.
“Almost old enough, yes,” Mark said. “What I can’t understand is why Linah would want to murder her own father.”
“Is Prince Eli pretty upset?” Alex asked. “Jared was his brother.”
“You can ask him on Thursday if he meets us at the airport,” Mark said. “The funeral’s on Friday.”
“F—Friday?” Alex glanced up to where Krystina stood with her shoulder resting against the door frame between the kitchen and the dining room. He sensed her parents were listening as well. Her brows were creased in compassion. “When do we fly out?”
“I’m working on the arrangements, but I think if we take a helicopter down to Hudson Valley Regional, we should be able to take the private jet from there. If we leave Kingston Wednesday morning, we can fly all day and then through the night and be to the Prince Abdul Majeed Bin Abdulaziz Domestic by mid-day on Thursday.”
“Are Hazel and the boys coming with us?” Alex was impressed by how smoothly Mark was able to rattle off the name of the airport closest to Madain Saleh. It was quite a mouthful.
“She’s considering it,” Mark said. “The boys are a handful under normal conditions, and you and I will be busy. And with her being pregnant… I don’t know.”
“What if you had a couple extra hands?” Alex smiled at Krystina, an idea forming in his head.
Krystina must have seen his vision before he asked because she was bouncing on her toes and Alex could almost hear the words in her head. Take me! Take me!
“Let me guess, you want to bring Krystina.” Mark chuckled.
“Only, ya know, if you need her to come.” Alex shrugged nonchalantly, not that Mark could see him.
“Of course, bring her along,” Mark said. “Maybe her coming will convince Hazel to come.”
“Okay, well, sounds like we need to get packing,” Alex said.
Krystina jumped up and down like a cheerleader on the sidelines of a football game waving poms in the air. Her youthful jubilance was going to keep him smiling for years as they grew old together. He couldn’t wait.
Mark’s voice took on a more serious tone. “Thanks for coming with me, man.”
“I would follow you anywhere, Your Highness,” Alex spoke with just as much seriousness. “You know that.”
“You have proven that over and over, my friend.”
“I guess I’ll see you Wednesday morning.” Alex said goodbye to Mark and tucked his phone in the pocket of his sport coat just as Krystina hurried into his arms, climbing onto his lap.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Let’s see if you’re still excited after eating sand for several days.” Alex chuckled and Krystina leaned forward to plant an excited kiss on his mouth.
“You are not going anywhere with this man, young lady,” Krystina’s father said from the doorway, his arms folded, and his brow furrowed.
“Oh, yes, I am, daddy.” Krystina hopped off Alex’s lap and reached a hand down to help him off the chair. “I’m an adult with my own job and I pay my own bills, and if I want to fly on a private jet with my boyfriend to the Middle East to stay in a palace with princes and princesses and eat delicious Middle Eastern cuisine, I will.”
Alex stood and reached into his pocket for the keys to his car while slipping on his shoes. He called into the dining room, “Thank you for a lovely meal, Mrs. Clark. Sorry we have to bolt, but duty calls.” Thank goodness, he thought to himself. He opened the door and bounded down the porch steps.
Krystina jumped onto Alex’s back from the porch like a little girl riding piggyback. He laughed and started toward the car, then suddenly turned back to the still-opened front door where her dad stood with an angry scowl.
“Oh, and I should probably inform you that I intend to ask your daughter to marry me sometime soon.” Alex spoke with confidence, not asking permission, just giving her dad the heads-up. “Don’t worry, we’ll elope when we’re ready, so you’ll never have to deal with me again.”
“I promise to call when your first grandchild is born,” Krystina called behind her, giggling.
Alex realized he’d better not leave things that flippantly. He turned around again. “We’re kidding,” he called. “Of course, you can come to the wedding. Unless we really do elope. I don’t know.”
He shrugged his shoulders and hoisted her further up his hips, carrying her the rest of the way to his Porsche. Resting her on her feet, Alex rubbed his chin.
“You know, if we’re going to give them grandbabies, we’re going to need a bigger car.”
“Let’s go car shopping when we get back from the Middle East,” Krystina suggested.
“And maybe ring shopping while we’re there?” Alex asked, lifting his eyebrows.
“I am so loving this trip already,” she said.
With his little sports car between them and the front door to her parent’s house, Alex pushed Krystina gently against the side of his car and took her face between his hands, lowering his mouth to cover hers.
A few seconds later he heard the front door slam, but he didn’t stop kissing her for several long, heavenly minutes.
“What is your actual day job?” Krystina’s father, Lincoln leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. His brows were furrowed, and his mouth pursed in suspicion. “You show up in a sports car that probably cost more than our home with a haughty attitude and a slight Southern accent. Who are you really?”
The dining room where they were gathered boasted panelboard walls and a Formica table. The faux wood tile flooring had peeling edges from years of mopping and there was a faint odor emanating from the large dog bed tucked into the corner. A Golden Retriever scratched at the back patio sliding glass door, grating on Alex’s nerves. No one else seemed bothered by the scratching.
“I’m sorry I came across that way, sir,” Alex said, wiping his mouth and resting his paper napkin on his lap. “I really should buy a different car and tuck that one in the garage for days when I’m feeling particularly adventurous.” Alex chuckled.
Lincoln didn’t crack a smile or relax his stance.
“Right, so, I’m a real estate developer and one-quarter owner in a company called Domrey Incorporated that builds solar arrays and solar panels.”
“That is a strange name for a company.” Lincoln continued to glare at Alex.
“It’s a play on words, actually, combining the Spanish words for sun and king. Marcos spent part of his youth living in Mexico with his family, and he and I both speak fluent Spanish.”
“I thought Prince Marcos is from the Middle East?” Krystina interrupted her father’s interrogation. The meal her mother had so graciously prepared in honor of her daughter bringing her new boyfriend over for introductions was growing cold on their plates. Alex could almost see the gravy congealing on the edge of his mashed potatoes.
“His kingdom is Madain Saleh, which is tucked within the deserts of Saudi Arabia, but his grandfather fled their homeland because his brother’s widow threatened his newborn son and wife. They settled just south of Cancun and Mark’s father still rules there as a sort of king, more like a governor.”
“What?” Krystina’s mom, Tammy stopped them. “Kings? Princes? Governors? What does this all have to do with real estate development and solar panels?”
“They’re not related,” Alex said. “I’m sorry to be so confusing. One of our college roommates was fascinated by solar energy and talked us into investing with him. Because Prince Marcos and I are both billionaires, we didn’t hesitate to help our friend.”
“Wait… b—billionaires?” Lincoln shook his head as if to clear the shock. “How does a real estate developer at your age become a billionaire?”
“Inheritance.” Alex raised his eyebrows, getting tired of Krystina’s dad’s antagonism, but trying to be patient.
“And what’s all this talk of princes?” Tammy asked.
“One of my other college roommates—and childhood best friend—is the crown prince of a tiny kingdom called Madain Saleh that is one of only three sovereign nations in the world completely contained within another sovereign nation. I am his advisor.”
“Advisor?” Lincoln asked.
“Yes, sir.” Alex nodded.
“And how did you meet our daughter?” Tammy asked.
Krystina wrapped both of her arms around Alex’s arm and bragged to her parents. “Alex is a city councilman. He came into my office looking for land records.”
Alex chuckled, took a deep, frustrated breath, and patted her hand with his. He bit his tongue, hoping Krystina didn’t bring up the possibility he might go to jail because of those land records. Thankfully, she didn’t.
“Let me get this straight”—Lincoln cleared his throat— “You’re a city councilman, a real estate developer, part owner of a successful manufacturing company, a billionaire, bilingual, and advisor to a Saudi prince? Are you for real? a pathological liar? have delusions of grandeur?”
Alex pressed his lips together, afraid of the rude things he’d say if he opened his mouth.
“Daddy, you’re not being very nice to my friend.” Krystina sounded like she was going to cry. Alex reached over and placed his hand on her knee, trying to reassure her that he could handle her father’s rude behavior.
“First of all, get your hands off my daughter, and second, please answer my question.”
Alex left his hand on her knee and said through clenched teeth, “That was four questions, not one, your daughter is an adult and if she wanted me to remove my hand she would ask me herself, Prince Marcos is not a Saudi prince—he was born in the United States and is heir to the throne of the kingdom called Madain Saleh—and I am fluent in three languages, not two.”
“What other language do you speak?” Krystina asked with awe in her tone.
“Arabic,” Alex answered in a quiet voice, then turned to Krystina. “Are you finished with your meal? I think I’ve overstayed my welcome.”
Alex’s phone vibrated in the breast pocket of his sport coat, but he tried to ignore it, not wanting to be rude to Krystina’s mother and father, even though they had been rude to him.
They all stared at Alex’s chest as if daring him to answer his phone during dinner. He lifted his chin, refusing to give in to the temptation of the intrusive little electronic device.
He reached for his fork and made a show of scooping up a bite of mashed potatoes then almost gagged on the cold food clogging his mouth. He reached for the glass of water next to his plate and downed several swallows, noting the rust tint and slight sulfur smell.
Before he could set down his glass, the phone rang again. He decided to just get up and leave the room. He wiped his mouth with his napkin, hoping the congealed food and unfiltered well water stayed down, then dropped his napkin on his plate and reached inside his jacket pocket.
The caller ID didn’t surprise him. He touched the screen to answer the phone as he walked into the kitchen.
“Your Highness? Is everything okay?”
“No, Alex”—Mark sounded as if he was on the verge of tears— “My cousin has been murdered.”
“Please don’t be offended but I asked Mark for advice with regards to meeting your parents tonight.” Alex glanced over at Krystina, barely taking his eyes off the twisting mountain road. She leaned her head back and laughed.
“Why would I be offended?” Krystina asked. “Girls talk to each other about their boyfriends all the time. Why shouldn’t guys be able to talk about their girlfriends?” They were hugging the curves through the Kaaterskill Forest on their hour drive to visit her parents in Prattsville.
“Well, that’s the thing,” Alex said. “He encouraged me to define our relationship status prior to meeting your parents.”
“Would you like to take a selfie and post it on Instagram? or use it as a Facebook profile picture and change our status to ‘in a relationship’?” Krystina teased him. He tried to hide a smile as he forced his face to remain stoic. “I’m totally joking.”
“I am a city councilman, a business owner, and the advisor to the crown prince of a sovereign nation. I do not have social media platforms anymore.”
“Oh, come on, you had to have had some in college.” Krystina poked him in the side. “I want to see your old social media profiles from years ago.”
“I want to marry you.”
“What?” Her face calmed and all teasing disappeared. “You do?”
“Okay, um, I need to process this.” Krystina turned to face forward and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “I mean, I’ve had a crush on you for a while. But you just met me, and we barely know each other, and, and… yes.”
“Yes, I’ll marry you,” Krystina said. Just like that. So matter of fact.
“No, I wasn’t asking you to marry me,” Alex said, panic crushing his chest. She’d misunderstood. She pursed her lips and turned the other way. Not the reaction he wanted. “I would never ask you to marry me without talking to your father first, and without a ring, and without some sort of grand gesture that could be video recorded so you could post it on your social media sites.” He wanted to reach for her hand but didn’t dare let go of the steering wheel while his Porsche was hugging curves that were inches away from guardrails protecting them from certain death in the ravine below.
“You would do all of that for me?” Now she really sounded like she was going to cry.
“Yeah, I would.” Alex loved her playful, youthful, goofy personality. He would want to do things the way she would want them done, but in the proper order.
“But you haven’t even told me you loved me yet.”
“That’s another reason why I don’t want to propose to your right now,” Alex said. “That’s a word I’ve never said to a woman before, not even my mother since she’s been dead longer than I can remember. I won’t take that lightly.”
“Really?” Krystina rested her hand over her heart and Alex was momentarily distracted by her tastefully cut blouse that showed just enough of her neckline to leave something to the imagination. He suddenly had a vivid imagination. He pulled himself back to the reasons why they couldn’t get engaged yet.
“We should also probably wait until this legal stuff resolves itself. What if I’m somehow charged with a crime? I could lose everything. I don’t want to bring you down with me.”
“Are you innocent?” She folded her arms across her chest.
“Then there’s no problem,” she said.
“What if I want a prenuptial agreement?” Alex asked.
“You’re a billionaire. I would expect nothing less. Your legal counsel would be doing you a disservice to not include a prenuptial agreement.”
“What if I don’t want to have kids?”
“Then we won’t have kids,” she said.
“What if we have to go live in Madain Saleh?”
“Then you’d better buy me a really colorful scarf to wrap around my head and neck so I can go out in the desert wind without getting a sunburn or sand in my hair.”
At that Alex leaned his head back and laughed heartily. Then he pulled his serious mask back in place. “What if I go to jail?”
“I’ll bring you cookies each week.”
Alex laughed again. “I love you, Krystina, you’re adorable.”
“What did you just say?” She turned to him with her eyes wide.
“What’d I say?” Alex’s smile fell when he realized the words that had slipped out of his mouth.
Alex slammed on the brakes and pulled his Porsche to the side of the mountain highway, hoping no cars came around the corner to hit them over the guardrail, but not really caring at that moment. He shoved the gear into park and engaged the parking brake.
“That is how it’s supposed to be done.” Alex turned to Krystina and took her hand in his.
“Huh?” Her eyes were wide, and her mouth gaped.
“That’s exactly why I’ve never told a woman I loved her,” Alex tried to explain. “Because the words should just flow naturally based on a relationship that’s strong enough to laugh together and cry together and face the good and bad times together.”
“And you think we’re ready for all that?” she whispered.
“I have no idea.” Alex shrugged. He reached up to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. “All I know is that right here, right now, in this moment, I love you.”
“Oh, Alex, I swear I’m dreaming.”
“If you’re dreaming then I’m dreaming.” He raised his eyebrows and shook his head gently.
“This is a really great dream,” she said, her shoulders softening.
“You know what would make this an even better dream?” Alex asked, his voice lowering.
“If you let me kiss you,” he whispered.
“I can do that.” Krystina leaned forward and laced her hands into his hair, crushing her lips to his. He moaned and pulled her closer, as close as they could get with a steering column in the way, and the gear shift in between them, and very uncomfortable bucket seats.
The way his body and heart were reacting to his admission of love and her acceptance of his suggestion they get married and their passionate kiss, it was a good thing they were incredibly uncomfortable or he might have been tempted to take things further than a kiss. Instead, he pulled away and gazed into her eyes with a soft smile.
“Would it be okay for me to go meet your father now?” Alex whispered.
“You can meet my mother too, if you want,” she teased.
“I want,” Alex said with a soft laugh, then leaned closer to her ear. “I want all of you.”
“Well then you’d better take me home to meet my parents, Alex Stephenson.”
Alex disengaged the parking brake, pushed his foot onto the clutch, and slid the shaft into first gear, pulling back onto the mountain road with a renewed excitement for their future.
“This could take a while,” Joshua said. They were finished gathering intel and heading home, wherever that was. Alex wasn’t privy to that information. “Please go about your daily lives as we develop a case against these guys. Agents will be coming back and forth and interviewing people but it’s best if you know nothing about that. Don’t purposely avoid people, but don’t go out of your way to hang out with them either. You are still very much possible suspects since you each have a one-quarter interest in the business that’s benefitting from the sales and manufacturing of those solar arrays.”
“We are potential suspects?” Alex asked, a panic crushing his chest. “But we’re the ones who called and asked you to come investigate.”
“Nothing is ruled out at this point in the game,” Amber said. “You’d be surprised how many people report a crime they personally committed just to throw the police off their own trail. They think the cops won’t look at them because they reported the crime. We will leave no stone unturned at this stage.”
“That’s understandable,” Mark said, nodding and lowering his eyebrows sternly at Alex. “We wouldn’t expect anything less. Since we are innocent, we have nothing to hide.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Alex said, still apprehensive. He glanced out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the waterfall that seemed to flow out of the side of the home, crashing with fierce intensity over the rocks disturbing the serene pool of water below.
Joshua and Amber packed up their files in rolling filing carts and briefcases and cleared out their things from Mark’s dining room. The agents had become more like friends these past few weeks and Alex almost felt a sense of loss seeing them pack up and leave.
Aaron ran into the dining room and slammed into Joshua’s legs.
“Hey, little buddy.” Joshua swept Aaron up in his arms and rested him on his hip. “You be a good boy for your mom and dad, okay?”
“I miss you Josh-wa,” Aaron said in a baby voice too young for even a two-year-old. Alex hadn’t realized they’d grown close because he usually came over after the kids had gone to bed for the night. The thought never occurred that Joshua and Amber had been at the Sayid’s house nearly every day for almost three weeks. Aaron reached his hands out to Amber and she transferred little Aaron to her arms for an affectionate hug. “You my friend now, Amber.”
“Yes, Aaron, I’m your friend now.” She pulled back slightly to look him in the eye. “Will you keep drawing me pictures? You can have your mommy mail them to me and then I’ll send you more stickers.”
“Yay! Stickers!” Aaron threw his arms up into the air and squirmed to get down. He ran from the room, calling out to Hazel. “Mommy, I need drawing. I get stickers.”
The four adults still standing in the dining room chuckled and Mark stuck his hands in his pockets.
“I’m baffled why Aaron runs to his mommy for drawing supplies when his daddy is standing right here.” He didn’t sound jealous, just resigned. “At least he doesn’t see me as a mean tyrant.”
“If anything, you spoil him, Your Highness,” Alex said, pushing Mark’s shoulder.
“Someday, when you’re a father, you’ll understand,” Mark said.
“He’s right,” Joshua said with a nod. “Anyway, we should get on the road. Thank you for allowing us to monopolize your lives for a few days. We’ll be in touch, but like I said, it could be a while.”
“Thank you for your diligence upholding the law,” Alex said, reminding himself that there was more on the line than just some tax evasion. A man had been murdered. “We appreciate you coming so quickly.”
They all reached around the room to shake one another’s hands and then Amber and Joshua strode to the front door, down the path to their waiting SUV and drove away.
“Why does it feel like my best friends just left and we’ll never see them again?” Mark asked, standing at the door watching the now empty driveway.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” Alex said with a sigh. The green leaves on the trees lining the driveway created a tunnel out to the road. “This thing’s gonna blow up in our faces isn’t it?”
“When we least expect it.” Mark leaned against the wall in the hallway and turned to Alex. “We did the right thing, though, calling the FBI.”
“I agree. Hey, change of subject,” Alex said, leaning against the opposite wall. “Krystina’s taking me to meet her parents. Any advice?”
“Now I’m advising you?” Mark chuckled.
“You’ve done this before. I haven’t had a serious relationship since early college. And she sure didn’t take me home to meet her family.”
“Well, you have several advantages.” Mark rubbed his chin. “No one’s encouraging an arranged marriage, Krystina’s an adult rather than a seventeen-year-old high school senior like Hazel was when I met her, and of course you have the added benefit of not being a crown prince.”
“Ah, yes, that is an advantage.” Alex laughed.
“I think my best advice is to establish parameters for your relationship before you meet her father,” Mark said, more serious. “I’d hate for you to ask for her hand in marriage and then find out all she wants in a non-committed relationship.”
“Good point.” Alex nodded. “She and I will have to talk about that.”
“Has it gotten that serious already?” Mark asked.
“I think so.” I hope so.
“Already?” Hazel came traipsing into the room, her growing belly proceeding her. “Mark here asked me to elope the night we met.”
“Getting married that night was your idea, my darling.” Mark pulled his wife into his arms and made no attempt to hide his fascination with her growing baby bump, resting one hand to the side of where his son was growing.
“Yeah, you suggested we skip the wedding and just go for it right there on the beach,” she teased.
“That is my cue to get the heck outta here,” Alex said, slipping on his shoes. “I’ll let you know how things go with Krystina’s parents.”
“Come over for dinner on Saturday, okay?” Hazel called as Alex bounded down the path, trying to get as far away from the lovebirds as quickly as he could.
“Have your people call my people to set it up,” Alex called over his shoulder.
“You are my people,” Mark called back in a teasing voice. “It’s your job to set these things up.”
“Fine then.” Alex turned all the way around to where Mark and Hazel still stood in their open doorway, wrapped in each other’s arms. “Have your wife call my w—future wife.”
“I’m gonna tell her you called her that,” Hazel called out in jest.
“Go for it,” Alex said, climbing into his Porsche, then mumbled to himself. “If I don’t tell her first.” He clicked his seatbelt into place, shoved the gear into reverse and conducted a perfect tight-radius three-point turn and spit gravel behind him as he gunned his sports car onto the road, feeling a little invincible and ready for the next phase of his life to begin.
In order to fully understand the imaginary country of Madain Saleh, you have to understand the imaginations within the creative mind. I have selected an actual location with history that dates back thousands of years and created a country wherein my princes would live, if they existed, which they don’t. Except in my creative mind, wherein they are loved and happy. Hopefully exploring Madain Saleh will help me finish Alexander’s story. I know how the story ends, and I know how it begins, there’s just this place in between where I can’t seem to connect the dots. Be patient with me. What would you like to see happen here in the middle? -Julie L. Spencer
“Please, Krystina, see this from my perspective.” He hurried to keep up.
“Your perspective?” She wheeled on him and drove her finger into his chest. “You have no perspective except that of a haughty billionaire trying to protect his own interests. The only reason you woke up to this scandal is because it’s going to affect your business.”
“That’s not true,” Alex said. “When I heard Abe go on about the illegal activities, I believed him. No matter whose business would be affected, I knew we had to dig deeper and find out what was really going on.”
“And just because I have access to the files you think I have inside knowledge about illegal activities?” She took another angry step toward him.
“Yes, no, wait, what was the question?” Alex stammered, taking a step backward, hoping she didn’t shove him into the Hudson River, which was dangerously close to the edge of the walking path. “Don’t you?”
“Don’t I what?” Her nostrils flared as if she were preparing to charge him like a bull.
“Don’t you have access to all the files?” He held his hands out in defense of her potential charge.
“Probably, but that doesn’t mean I’m participating in illegal activities.” Krystina balled her fists at her sides.
“Did you have any idea there were problems with the installations of the solar arrays before Abe came to your office?”
“No, that never would have occurred to me.” She relaxed her arms a fraction.
“Did you understand what Abe was concerned about?” Alex probed.
“Not really.” She shrugged.
“Why didn’t you tell me Abe had been in your office before I came to see you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t even think about it. Abe was this sweet, little old kook who had weird theories about government conspiracies and stuff. He was always going on about this or that. I didn’t really understand most of his ramblings. I just brought him whatever files he wanted and helped him if he had a challenge with the computers.”
“At what point did you realize there was a problem?” Alex asked, relaxing his defensive stance now that she wasn’t advancing.
“When you and Prince Marcos started discussing missing solar arrays, and the FBI, and the information not leaving my office.” She relaxed her shoulders a little.
“You had no idea why I was pulling every land record that had a solar array installed?”
“No.” She shook her head softly. Her blue eyes were wide, innocent, sincere. “I had no idea. I’ve learned not to ask questions of the customers who come into my office. Those documents are public records. I would never want to be accused of withholding public records from anyone. The Freedom of Information Act is quite clear on that. If I get a FOIA inquiry, I jump to fulfil the customer’s request. No questions asked.”
“So… my charms and your crush on me had no influence on your willingness to help me out?” A little smirk pulled at Alex’s mouth.
She lowered her gaze and her cheeks flushed pink. “If anything, my crush on you slowed me down.”
“What was that?” Alex took a step closer and pulled her into his arms. “You admit you had a crush on me?”
“I still do,” she mumbled, still not meeting his gaze.
“Still do what?” Alex playfully baited her.
“I still have a crush on you.” Her statement was defiant, frustrated that he forced her to admit the truth. She finally looked him in the eye. “Are you happy now?”
“I’m very happy now,” Alex said, a husky seductive tone escaping with his reply. “I may have to marry you, Krystina Clark.”
“What?” she gasped. “Why? You barely know me.”
“So, we’ll spend a few months getting to know one another, I’ll sweep you off your feet with one romantic gesture after another, eventually propose to you and put an obnoxiously large diamond on your hand, marry you, have lots of beautiful babies together, and live happily ever after.”
“How can you possibly want to marry me?” she asked, a smile pulling at both sides of her mouth, threatening to break free. “You’ve never even kissed me.”
“We can remedy that right now.” Alex pulled her even closer, lacing his hand up into the hair at the base of her neck, cradling her as she dropped her head back to look up into his eyes. “If you approve of that course of action.”
“I approve,” she said. “One hundred percent, I approve.” Krystina lifted onto her toes, meeting him halfway and Alex pressed his lips to hers.
On the banks of the Hudson River, at the completion of a heated argument, and with the threat of a dangerous government scandal hanging over them, Alex kissed Krystina without doubt that she would someday become his wife.
And they hadn’t even fallen in love yet.
“I don’t think it fully set in that Mark was a prince until I saw him wearing his crown Saturday night,” Krystina said. “You don’t normally see princes reading bedtime stories and attempting bath time without assistance from a nanny or something.”
“You don’t normally see princes at all in the Hudson Valley of New York state,” Alex said. He and Krystina were walking along the Kingston Point Rail Trail looking out over the Hudson River, enjoying the Monday afternoon sunshine during her lunchbreak.
“Yeah, why is he here? Shouldn’t he be running his country?” Krystina had changed out of her dress shoes and laced up sneakers to go for their walk. She looked adorable in her professional skirt and blouse sporting bobby socks and Keds.
“Hazel wanted to live by a waterfall,” Alex explained. “Madain Saleh is a desert surrounded by a desert.” The oasis where the Sayid’s ruled was a tiny spot of land valued for an ancient spring of pure water that bubbles up from somewhere below the earth’s surface.
Krystina giggled. “Well, he sure found her a pretty waterfall to live near.”
“I found that waterfall, thank-you-very-much.” Alex puffed out his chest and lifted his chin. “Searching for that house launched my career as a real estate agent.”
“And a fine real estate agent you are, my dear.” Krystina answered his haughty bragging with a playful endearment of her own. They laughed lightly and Alex pulled her just a little closer.
“He’s not needed in his kingdom right now.” Alex continued his explanation. “The king is still alive and ruling. Mark has a few cousins vying for his place on the throne, even though King Sayid chose Marcos as the crown prince.”
“Shouldn’t he be learning how to run the country?” Krystina asked. “If he’s going to rule someday.”
“He keeps in close contact with the king,” Alex said. “Why? Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Get rid of you?” Krystina creased her brow. “Why would you think that?”
“If he goes, I go.”
“I’m Prince Marcos Sayid’s advisor,” Alex said. “I’ve committed my life in service to my prince.”
“Why do you always refer to him as your prince? It’s almost possessive.”
“The best way to understand the possessive nature is to think of having the royal family in one space, each adult prince or princess has his or her own advisor. No advisor is assigned to more than one member of the royal family. Thus, I am his advisor and he is my prince. While we are attending any formal event, especially at the palace, we are rarely more than a few feet apart.”
“That’s really weird.” Krystina was quiet for moment as they walked, then she spoke very softly. “So, you would really have to leave if he does?”
“What if you wanted to get married or something.” She waved her hand in the air dismissively.
“Mark’s married. Why couldn’t I be?”
“But wouldn’t you have to live over there?” she asked.
“How would that be different than if I were a serviceman deployed in the Middle East?”
“I guess it wouldn’t be,” she agreed.
“The big difference is, I have a private jet and can come home to America anytime I want.” He hesitated and turned to face her, taking both of her hands in his. “Or, I could bring my wife to live with me in the palace.”
“Is the palace beautiful?” she asked, a note of awe in her voice.
“Elegant and ostentatious and adorned in gold and silks, with shining white marble flooring, crystal chandeliers hanging from cathedral ceilings, velvet thrones and Persian tapestries.”
“I’d like to see that someday.” Krystina stepped closer, her blue eyes a deeper color than usual, her cheeks flushed from their walk.
“I’d like to take you there someday.” Alex also took a step closer, his hands still clasping hers. His voice was soft and reverent.
“Planning a trip there anytime soon?” she asked, hope in her inflection.
“Not until Hazel stops popping out baby princes once a year.” Alex chuckled. “Hard to travel while pregnant and toting around a couple of car seats and diaper bags.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” She still hadn’t backed away, so Alex released her hands and wrapped his around her waist, pulling her even closer. Little effort would be required for him to lean down and brush his lips with hers. Was it too soon for that? They’d spent time together almost every day since they’d met a week ago. He wanted to take their relationship to the next level but knew he needed to come clean and tell her what he’d done.
“I have a confession to make,” Alex said, cringing from the stress of what he was about to do.
He hated to break up their lovely afternoon, but if he wanted to pursue a relationship with Krystina he couldn’t allow this secret to hang between them.
“Your best friend’s a prince,” Krystina guessed, resting her hands gently on his arms. “Oh, wait, I already knew that confession.”
“That is common knowledge.” Alex glanced at the walking path then lifted his gaze again. “No, this is a little more serious.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure we can get through this together.” Her whispered answer was reassuring but it didn’t stop his heart from racing.
“I thought you were in on it,” Alex admitted, averting his eyes across the Hudson River so she couldn’t see his guilt.
“In on what?” Her innocent naivete was endearing.
“The plot to embezzle cash away from the county treasury.”
“What?” Krystina dropped her hands and stepped away pulling herself out of his arms.
“I don’t think that now.” Alex tried to backpedal. “I mean, I can’t know for sure. You do have full access to every file in the county. If anyone would know details, you would.”
“How could you think that about me?” Her eyes were full of fire. “And here I was starting to fall for you.”
“I’m falling for you too,” Alex said, trying to reach for her hand again.
“Don’t touch me,” she snapped at him. She shook her head in disbelief, turned on her heel and strode back toward his car.
“Dr. Stephenson, are you almost ready to go?” Nicholas called up the stairs to his twin brother, Levi. He already had the kickstand lifted, his helmet on, and his backpack strapped in place. His patience was wearing thin. “I have a meeting with a grad student in twenty minutes.”
“Dr. Stephenson, why do you insist on calling me Dr. Stephenson when we are still at home?” Levi answered as he hurried down the stairs to where his bike propped against the wall in the ground floor garage of their townhouse. As Levi walked past the candy apple red Lamborghini Urus that they supposedly shared, Nicholas snapped at his brother.
“Don’t scratch my car, dude.” Nicholas realized a luxury SUV imported from Italy was the least likely choice of a Harvard professor, but he just couldn’t resist temptation when he saw the concept car at the Beijing Auto Show. Without blinking an eye, he paid the $270,000 in advance and secured one of the coveted first run of a thousand off the production line. The perks of growing up a billionaire.
“Did I, or did I not, pay for half of that beauty?” Levi asked, strapping on his helmet and lifting his bike from where it rested against the inside wall of the garage. “Not that I’ve ever driven it.”
“I’m oldest. I get to drive,” Nicholas said, rolling out into the parking lot.
“By seven minutes. That hardly counts.” Levi mounted his bike and reached for the button to close the garage door.
Nicholas watched longingly as his prized possession disappeared behind the protective barrier between his baby and the elements that threatened its paint job. He wondered if he’d ever get tired of looking at his new toy. He shook off the nostalgia and pushed away from the curb, engaging the pedals of his bike.
The light breeze blowing through his thick brown hair made him smile as he let gravity and momentum pull him toward campus where they both taught.
As a professor of environmental archaeology, he worked closely with his brother’s expertise in ancient languages to reconstruct past civilizations, particularly the Mayan culture. Levi was at least partially fluent in all the main branches of the Mayan languages, particularly the Quichean.
The Geek Twins, as their childhood friends used to call them, had been fascinated with the cultures in Guatemala all their lives. There were interwoven ties between their father, who served in an Army Special Forces unit during a humanitarian crisis along the Texas-Mexican border helping Guatemalan refugees, and their father’s cousin who married a Mayan princess who was also somehow a distant cousin of theirs and shared their last name.
The confusing blood lines and generational interconnections were fascinating, and the twins had devoted their life’s work to understanding and preserving their heritage.
Because their family was so wealthy, Nicholas and Levi had never needed to work traditional jobs. They had devoted one hundred percent of their adult lives to their studies and flown through their undergraduate and post-graduate programs. At the ripe old age of twenty-nine they were world-renowned in their fields.
They were also bachelors. Dating and marriage had barely crossed their minds. They joked they’d have to find girls who were also identical twins, loved traveling to archaeological sites in Meso-America and didn’t mind microwave meals and long nights of research. In other words, they’d be bachelors forever.
The bike rack beside the door to the Tozzer Anthropology Building, where they shared an office, was sparsely populated this early in the morning. They locked their bikes and Nicholas held open the door for his brother, who unhooked the strap from his bike helmet as they began the three-story trek up the stairs.
“Man, I hope I don’t look as ridiculous as you do with your sweaty helmet head,” Nicholas said, chuckling as he removed his own helmet. He ran his hand through his thick hair, trying to straighten out the fly-a-ways, and fluff the parts that were matted down.
“We’re identical twins,” Levi said. “If I look ridiculous, you look ridiculous.”
“Good thing I don’t have any meetings this morning.” Nicholas turned at the first landing, his legs still strong even after their bike ride. He was proud of their commitment to maintaining an active lifestyle, a requirement if they were going to be ready at a moment’s notice if someone needed them at an archaeology dig.
“I thought you said you were meeting with a grad student.” Levi had no trouble keeping up as they turned the corner at the final landing, and they almost seemed to race up the last section of stairs.
“Yeah, but he won’t care what I look like,” Nicholas said, pushing his brother out of his way, his spirit of competition kicking into high gear during those last few stairs. Just as he pushed open the heavy door to the third-floor hallway, he said, “No one cares what I look like.”
“I care,” a sultry voice startled him as he entered the hallway.
Nicholas stopped short when he noticed the gorgeous blond leaning against the wall next to the nameplate near the door to his office. Her blue eyes danced with amusement and Nicholas was caught in her gaze as his brother plowed into him.
She chuckled but didn’t move from where she stood with her arms crossed, a professional Navy button-down dress shirt and khaki slacks so different than the jeans and t-shirts worn by the college kids. She had a sport coat draped over her folded arms and computer bag at her feet.
“Becky?” Nicholas shook off his stupor. “I mean, Dr. Benson. What are you doing in Massachusetts?”
NOTE FROM JULIE: If you haven't read the chapter where Jacob meets Maryam, I strongly suggest you read that first. When you're done reading this chapter, there is another link to the chapter immediately following this one. Warning: completely inappropriate (but hilarious) topic of conversation!
“Little brother,” Liam spoke from the doorway of Jacob’s stateroom. “I bought you a gift when we went ashore.”
Jacob looked up from his iPad where he’d been typing a blog post. He was determined to follow the example of his older brother, Nicholas, and keep a record of their travels. His infatuation with the captain’s lovely daughter was a welcome distraction from the monotony of travelling the open sea, but Maryam worked long hours and could only fit in a few stolen moments here and there.
Plus, after her mother had caught Maryam flirting with Jacob, she kept her daughter working on the opposite end of the yacht, so those stolen moments were few and far between. Jacob needed a distraction from his distraction. Maryam knew where to find him.
“What is your gift?” Jacob was always leery of Liam. He was usually up to some mischief and straddled the line between right and wrong, often leaning more on the side of wrong.
Liam tossed a box onto Jacob’s lap that resembled a nondescript box of medical supplies, perhaps latex gloves or gauze.
When Jacob read the packaging, he gasped and tossed the box onto the bed beside him with disgust as if just its presence on his lap would taint him.
“I figured a box of fifty would be sufficient for our trip across the ocean.” Liam laughed at Jacob’s reaction.
“What makes you think I would need even one condom, much less a box of fifty?” Jacob croaked out. “Take them back. I will never use them. Ever.”
“You’d be surprised how quickly never turns into right now,” Liam said. He walked over to Jacob’s bed and picked up the offensive little box. He turned to the bedside table, opened the drawer, and tucked the box inside. “Trust me, you don’t want to be compelled to get married.”
“I will not need them until I get married,” Jacob said through clenched teeth. “At which time I will no longer need them because I will be married. I don’t see the logic in even keeping them.”
“There is nothing logical about what your body experiences when in the arms of a beautiful woman.” Liam patted Jacob on the shoulder as he passed him on the way out the door. “Keep one with you and use it when the time comes. And believe me, the time will come sooner than later. I’ve seen the way you look at each other when you don’t think anyone's watching.”
“That’s absurd,” Jacob called after him.
“Keep one with you,” Liam called back.
Jacob hesitated a moment, then, curious, he walked over and sat on the edge of his bed. Against his better judgement, he opened the drawer and stared down at the box.
“I just wanna see what one looks like,” Jacob whispered to himself. Almost as an afterthought, he stood and hurried over to the door, closing and locking it.
With trepidation he walked cautiously back over and sat on his bed again. He hesitated then reached for the box and slid his finger along the edge to break the seal. The box popped open as if by its own free will revealing dozens of little grey packages hooked together in rows. He pulled one row of five from the box. Ten rows of five. He shoved the row back in the box and tried to close the lid. Now that they’d been released from confinement, they wouldn’t fit back in the box.
He pulled a row out again and detached one little grey package. The visible ring slipped around inside as if lubricated. He wrinkled his nose.
Jacob just wanted to see what it looked like inside. Sure, his father had told him years ago about the changes his body would go through during puberty, but the topic of protection was barely mentioned in passing. The message had been clear: wait until marriage. Period. End of story.
So why did two of his brothers wind up getting girls pregnant prior to marriage? Maybe there should have been less insistence and more education? Maybe Liam was right. Maybe Jacob should learn more and not be so afraid of a natural part of being a man and a woman. He was a man now, after all. Nineteen years old was a man.
Jacob ripped open the package and pulled out the slimy ring. He didn’t understand how this thing could protect him from anything. He tried to unroll it, but it slid through his fingers. Everything about the little ring was offensive and gross. Without further consideration, he tossed the condom in the garbage can beside his bed along with the empty wrapper, closed the box as best he could and shut the drawer to his bedside table. He shuddered as he rose from his bed and hurried over to the bathroom to wash his hands.
“I am never using one of those disgusting things,” he vowed to himself as he scrubbed his hands with soap and water. The words Liam had said echoed in her mind. You’d be surprised how quickly never turns into right now.
“This is my stateroom?” Jacob turned in a circle, wondering how he was going to cram himself into this small a space.
“Isn’t it great?” Maryam asked. “This is probably the nicest yacht I’ve ever worked on.”
Jacob stopped and his jaw dropped. He realized with a single word he could offend this young lady, and he needed to be careful. “My brother helped design this boat.”
The yacht was a full 200 feet in length, had four decks above the waterline, two decks below, a helipad, two VIP suites in addition to the owner’s suite, a pool and jacuzzi, a movie theater, a massage parlor and beauty salon, a playroom, a bar, and a library.
“Wow, that’s so cool.” Maryam tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “He must be really smart.”
Jacob was momentarily distracted by the unique flecks of brown and gold in her aquamarine eyes. They were unlike any he’d ever seen. He shook off his stupor and flopped onto his bed and tucked his hands behind his head. “How long has your father been a captain?”
“Longer than I’ve been alive,” she said, sitting on the chair by the desk.
Jacob noticed his iPad was already plugged in at a port and waiting for him. He sat up and realized many of his things were already in place. “Did you organize my room?”
“Is it not to your liking?” Maryam hopped up and straightened the chair, pushing it back under the desk. “I can move things however you want them.”
“No, no, everything’s fine, please sit back down.”
“Are you sure?” She kept one hand on the chair and didn’t return to her seat.
“What do you do for fun around here?” Jacob asked, changing tactics.
“I work here,” she said.
“Well, they have to give you a day off now and then, right? I mean, it’s like thirty days that we’ll be at sea, right? They can’t work you twenty-four-seven.”
“No, I mean, yes, I’ll get some time off,” Maryam said. “But not for the first few days. When the family comes aboard, it’s our job to make sure everything’s perfect for them.”
“Well… I’m family.” He batted his eyelashes playfully. “You can be tasked with making sure everything’s perfect for me.”
Maryam giggled and Jacob’s heartrate increased. How was he going to be stuck together with this girl without eventually kissing her? He’d already practically asked her out and they’d known each other less than twenty minutes. He was in trouble.
“Hey, little brother, how do you like your home away from home?” Liam came around the corner but halted in the doorway. “Ooh, I didn’t realize I was interrupting anything.”
“Oh, no, sir, I was just making sure Master Jacob had everything he needed.” Maryam tried to duck past Liam, but he was leaning against the doorframe, essentially blocking her way.
“I’ll bet you were.” Liam wiggled his eyebrows playfully.
“Liam, leave her alone,” Jacob said.
Liam dropped his arm and stepped out of the way, offering Maryam a wink.
“And, Maryam?” Jacob called before she could get too far out the door. She turned back with hesitancy. “Please just call me Jacob.”
“Yes, sir.” She nodded respectfully and slipped down the hall.
“My little brother,” Liam said. “You are going to have one enjoyable trip across the Atlantic.”
“Whatever…” Jacob couldn’t help his mouth pulling into a grin, suspecting his oldest brother was right.
By the time Alex arrived at the treehouse, Hazel had left to drive the babysitter home, Amber was typing notes into a laptop at one corner of the dining room, and Joshua was spreading business cards around the dining room table next to the candid photos of suspects he and Amber had been gathering all week while sightseeing.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Mark said when Alex slipped his dress shoes off at the door and shrugged out of his sport coat. “Come get this crown off my head before I go crazy.”
“I remember a time when you used to wear that adornment all day and not complain.” Alex chuckled but followed Mark to his dressing room.
“If you repeat this, I’ll deny it.” Mark glanced over his shoulder as if checking to make sure his wife was still gone, then turned back to Alex and muttered. “I swear that woman puts this thing on wrong. She’s not been properly trained. I need my advisor on days when I’m advised to wear this adornment, as you call it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for the future,” Alex said.
As if this were an everyday activity, instead of the first time since Mark’s wedding, Alex reached for the formal leather bag at the corner of Mark’s walk-in closet and placed it reverently on Mark’s dressing table. He lifted the smaller of the two velvet boxes, which Alex knew contained Hazel’s crown, and set it aside. Lifting the larger of the two out of the bag, he opened the formal velvet box and stepped behind his prince.
Meeting one another’s gazes in the mirror, they took a moment to collect themselves, remembering the importance of reverence when placing or removing the crown.
Alex didn’t realize he’d missed this opportunity to be of service until his hands touched that simple band of gold and he lifted it off Prince Marcos Sayid’s head and floated the crown over to where it would slumber until needed again. He closed the lid, returned it to its leather bag and nested the smaller box on top. He then carried the leather bag over to its place of honor just inside the door of Mark’s closet.
Only then did he return to stand beside his prince, and they met one another’s gazes again. “There you go, Your Highness.”
“Thank you for your service,” Mark said, lifting his chin by way of showing appreciation.
Alex bowed his head respectfully, but briefly.
“Now, let’s go catch some bad guys,” Mark said with a gleam in his eyes.
“Don’t get too excited, Your Highness,” Alex warned. “This is our business crumbling along with theirs.”
“Yes, but we’re both billionaires so I think we can handle losing a few dollars.”
“What about all the people who are about to lose their jobs?” Alex asked.
“Hadn’t thought of that.” Mark pursed his lips in thought. “We’ll have to think of something.”
“How about we think while helping catch the bad guys,” Alex suggested.
“Good plan.” They headed back out to the dining room to help the FBI take down the mob boss of Kingston.
One hour. That’s how long it took the FBI agents to have a healthy list of suspects.
Alex had been insightful to insist Mark wear his crown.
A little birdie may have hinted to the mayor that the prince would be in formal attire, much more formal than most people would think to wear to a barbeque. Word spread from there. Most people in attendance were dressed for a garden party at a mansion with dignitaries, which is exactly the case.
Noah’s new home truly was elegant. Nested on the hillside overlooking Kingston, the six-bedroom, eight bath home boasted Italian marble flooring, a den almost the size of a small library, a kitchen to entice an amateur chef, and a game room with a billiard table, a full bar, and a movie screen.
But the inside wasn’t the most impressive thing about the home. The professionally manicured gardens featured a three-foot maze of yew hedging that would grow taller than a man within another ten years or so. Wraparound decking and patios surrounded the home in a full circle of entertaining spaces overlooking the gardens and the valley below.
Even with Noah’s one-quarter ownership of Domrey Incorporated and his mayor’s salary, there was no way he brought in enough money to afford the estate.
His arm wrapped possessively around the tiny waist of his trophy wife, Nikki, Noah mingled with his guests, flitting from one group to another, gracing them with his presence as their doting mayor.
Alex could barely contain a straight face. He wondered if Nikki realized she was no longer Noah’s sole focus of attention, if she ever had been. The way she flirted with other men, even while tucked within Noah’s ever-present hands, was unsettling.
Amber and Joshua Roland arrived with Prince Marcos and Hazel, stealing Noah’s limelight. Alex could almost see Noah’s clenched jaw beneath his fake smile. His façade shifted again to his game face and he welcomed his guests of honor, making quick work to introduce them to all the right people, most of whom were the very individuals the agents could easily identify as corrupt. That’s what they were trained to do.
Joshua was a master at creasing his brows and cocking his head in such a way that made people feel he was listening with interest to whatever they were rambling on about, then would take them by the elbow and quietly say, “I’d like to talk to you more about that. Do you have a business card?”
Amber used her casual flower-patterned sundress to blend into her husband’s side, taking careful mental notes of the man talking to Joshua as well as everyone surrounding them.
Mark was the perfect distraction, drawing the undivided attention of everyone else with his quick wit and celebrity status.
Hazel was a draw for every woman who needed to ask when she was due, if they knew whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and what they planned to name the little prince or princess. She played her part perfectly.
Alex and Krystina stood together, leaning against the railing of one of the outer decks, watching everyone at once, and leaning close to compare mental notes.
As the evening wore on, and grilled kabobs and salmon steaks had been replaced with chocolate fondues and flowing champagne, the guests became more animated and looser lipped. That was when the true intel was exposed.
The list of suspects became a slam dunk case against Mayor Noah Adlin and his business partner-in-crime, Councilman Andrew Huron. There were also a couple of contractors who were very obviously in cahoots with Noah and Drew, as well as two insiders at city hall.
Alex made the rounds to say goodnight to his now-inebriated hosts a few minutes prior to his team of detectives and drove Krystina home before heading up to Mark and Hazel’s.
“Hey, Noah, how quickly do you think you could pull together that barbeque we talked about?” Mark asked. He placed his cell phone in front of him on his dining room table and Amber and Joshua leaned closer to hear every word of the conversation through the speaker.
Alex watched with creased brow as he rested his back against the wall, propped up one foot and crossed his arms.
“You met the Roland’s today, right?” Mark asked without giving Noah a chance to answer. “I want to introduce them to the who’s who of the greater Kingston area. Your housewarming party is the perfect place to do that. We’ve got to convince them to move here.”
“How long are they going to be in town?” Noah asked. Alex could hear him flipping pages of the calendar on his desk. “I mean, are we talking tomorrow night? Or is Saturday afternoon okay?”
“Saturday’s perfect,” Mark said, giving a thumbs up to the FBI agents. They nodded their approval. “That will give us plenty of time to invite all our friends. Do you need help with the food? I can call in some favors and have the party catered.”
“That would be great, man,” Noah said. Alex could almost visualize him leaning back in his haughty leather chair. “Thanks.”
“Least I can do since you’re hosting the event,” Mark said.
“How are your friends liking the town so far?” Noah asked. “Did they find a house yet?”
“Not yet, and I don’t want them to get discouraged. Ya know what I mean?”
“How many people do you think you can pull together on short notice like this?” Mark asked.
“I’ve got connections,” Noah assured him. “I’ll get people there. So, your friends, do you think they’re the type to invest in the community?”
Translation, Alex thought. Do they want to donate to my re-election campaign?
“These guys are loaded, Noah,” Mark said with a lowered voice. “Between you and me, I think they could be a real asset to our community.”
“Let me see what I can pull together,” Noah said.
“Thanks, man. I knew I could count on you. Hey, I want to take them over to show off the factory. Who would be the best foreman to take us on a tour?”
“Ah, you’ll need to talk Drew about that,” Noah said. “I handle things over here at city hall. Drew handles the operations, if you know what I mean.”
“Cool, I’ll give him a call next,” Mark said. “Talk to you later, Mayor Adlin.”
“Later, Your Highness.”
Mark touched the screen on his phone to end the call and raised his eyebrows at the FBI agents leaning over his dining room table. “Do you think he bought it?”
“I’m personally questioning whether he bought it,” Alex piped up, still leaning against the wall. “That was too easy. You were too casual with him. You weren’t being… you.”
“What do you mean?” Mark stood to his full height.
“I have seen you stand up to kings, senators, and the scariest princess to ever rule an arid chunk of sand in the middle of nowhere.” Alex pushed himself away from the wall and stood eye to eye with his prince. “You were down on his level. He won’t buy it.”
“He bought it.” Mark raised his chin in defense. “I spoke his language because he needs to have his guard down enough to invite every slimeball he has on his payroll down there at city hall. If I ordered him around, he would have pushed back, and we would have gotten nowhere.”
“You’re wearing your crown Saturday night, you got that?”
Mark raised his eyebrows at Alex. “Now who’s throwing around orders?”
“I’m sorry, would this help?” Alex stepped to Mark’s right and cleared his throat. Leaning closer he said in a stage whisper, “Your Highness, you perform best when acting the part of… yourself. For this reason, I advise that you choose the smaller of your two crowns this coming Saturday evening.”
“I’ll take that into consideration, Alexander.” Mark’s voice was almost husky with emotion. Good. He needed a kick in the rear. And a shove back onto the pedestal where the good mayor would respect him once again.
Prince Marcos Sayid had been playing with drones and toy blocks for too many years. These local good ‘ol boys needed to know they weren’t going to pull the wool over the eyes of the tax paying citizens of this community.
Mayor Noah Adlin needed to know he wasn’t the mob boss, and this wasn’t inner-city Philadelphia.
Alex stepped away from his prince and glanced back at the two wide-eyed FBI agents. “I believe His Highness, Prince Marcos, will be taking you on a tour of our factory tomorrow. If you’ll excuse me, I promised my girlfriend I’d call her this evening. Let me know if there’s any other way I can be of service.”
“Thank you,” Mark said, lifting his chin. “That will be all for tonight.”
Alex nodded once and turned and strode from the room. A tiny smirk pulled at the corner of his mouth as he slipped on his jacket and loafers and pulled the door to the tree house closed behind him.
“Knock, knock,” Alex said, peeking in the door to the register of deeds office at the county building. For the split second between when Alex saw Krystina and she looked up from her work, his breath caught. Her blonde hair, which usually hung in waves around her shoulders was pulled up into a twist, bringing a sophistication to her otherwise youthful personality. She glanced up and her blue eyes widened.
“Oh! Alex! I was so worried about you!” Krystina came hurrying around her desk and wrapped herself in Alex’s arms. “Are you okay? Oh, you have friends with you.” She stepped back and composed herself, smoothing down her professional blouse that had gone askew when she’d thrown her arms around Alex.
“I’m fine,” Alex said, lifting her hand gently and squeezing it lightly. “I’m sorry I made you worry. Krystina, these are my friends Joshua and Amber Roland. They’re looking to buy some land here in the Hudson Valley.” Alex turned to the Roland’s with a smile.
“It’s nice to meet you.” Krystina held out her hand. “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.”
Joshua cocked his head to the side. “Do you… have property available for sale?”
“No.” Krystina chuckled. “I just have a treasure trove of information here in my office. People are always coming to search through my files to get old land records and tax information and to use our GIS.”
“What is a GIS?” Amber played the part of a uniformed civilian well. “Is that like how cell phone towers communicate with each other?”
“That would be GPS,” Krystina explained. “Global positioning systems held determine an exact point on the earth’s surface. But when you display all those points on a map and combine them with lots of information about each point, that’s how you get a geographic information system.”
“That sounds really complicated,” Amber said. “You know how to do all that?”
“Have you ever used Google Maps?” Krystina asked. “It’s kind of the same thing but a lot more information. I can show you if you’ve got time…” Krystina looked to Alex for direction, raising her eyebrows.
“I have all the time in the world,” Alex said, winking at Krystina, hoping to get back on her good side. If he could keep her guard down he’d either prove her innocence or catch her in a lie.
“Here, we can log into this computer,” Krystina said, leading Amber over to one of the workstations.
Alex was momentarily distracted by the way her tastefully low heels accentuated the curve of her calf muscles under a casual, flowing skirt that touched just below the knee. Seeing her like this, he really hoped they were able to prove her innocence. He’d always focused on her playful personality and intelligence, and… well, her flirty eyes, if he was being honest with himself. He hadn’t really taken the time to admire her other features.
“These computers are free to be used by the community.” She wiggled the mouse to wake up the idle computer and pulled out the wooden chair, inviting Amber to have a seat. “See if you click right here this brings up the base map and you can overlay the parcel information, and when you click on each parcel, all this data pops up.”
“Oh wow,” Amber said, leaning closer to the computer screen. “That’s a lot of information. Almost too much information. The government knows a lot about us, don’t they?” Amber glanced up at Krystina and bit her lower lip.
“Yes, they do… err, well, we do,” Krystina backpaddled. “I work for the government too. I help collect the information. Whenever a property sells, or splits, or sells development rights to a third party, it all comes through my office.”
“Is that how you met Alex?” Amber asked, glancing back to where Alex and Joshua still hovered just inside the door. “Because he’s a real estate agent?”
“Nah, everything he does is available online. I didn’t meet him until a few days ago when he was looking for some development rights information.” Krystina lowered her eyes and her cheeks turned an adorable shade of pink. “Although I’ve had a crush on him for, like, a long time.”
“Oh really?” Amber crossed her arms and smirked. “Do tell. Give us all the details. How oblivious was he to your crush?”
“He wasn’t oblivious,” Krystina said. “He’d just never met me before. I saw him at a campaign rally when he was running for city council and thought he was sooooo cute—if an adult woman is allowed to say that about a guy.”
“We’ll just keep it between us girls.” Amber motioned her finger back and forth between her and Krystina as if the guys weren’t even in the room. They all chuckled.
“Well, between us girls”—Krystina leaned closer and stage whispered— “We’ve only gone on one date, but I hope he asks me out again.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you if I talk to him later,” Amber said playfully.
“Anyway,” Alex said, coughing lightly into his fist. “Didn’t we have some houses we were going to look at?”
They all chuckled along, relishing in his embarrassment.
“It was really nice to meet you, Krystina,” Amber said, standing and holding out her hand, which Krystina clasped warmly.
“Likewise, Amber.” Krystina reached out to Joshua with a smile. “And Joshua.”
“I’ll call you later, okay?” Alex whispered, leaning closer and catching a heady whiff of whatever haunting fragrance she was diffusing through the soft, creamy skin of her graceful neck. Okay, he’d better get out of here before he shut the door, locking the Roland’s out into the hallway, and spent the remainder of the afternoon kissing Krystina until neither of them could see straight.
“Okay,” Krystina said with a soft giggle.
They locked eyes for a brief moment before he backed out of the room and lifted his hand to wave goodbye like a teenage boy gazing at his crush. He was in trouble.
As they strode down the hall, Alex mumbled under his breath, “Please tell me she’s innocent.”
“In my professional opinion as an FBI agent,” Amber said. “I think she’s innocent.”
“Agreed,” Joshua said.
“Thank goodness.” Alex felt like he could breathe again. “Let’s go find someone who’s not.”
“Noah,” Alex called out jovially. He cleared his throat and chuckled. “I mean, Mayor Adlin. I have some friends I’d like you to meet.”
Noah stood from behind his desk and reached for Joshua’s outstretched hand. “Good afternoon. Any friend of Alexander’s is a friend of mine.”
“Likewise,” Joshua said. “I’m Joshua Roland, and this is my wife Amber.” Joshua stepped back so Amber could shake Noah’s hand.
“The Roland’s are looking to buy property, or the right home if we find it, here in the Hudson Valley, so I’ll be taking them around over the next few days.” Alex turned to Joshua and Amber. “Noah is not only our mayor here in Kingston, but my business partner and former college roommate.”
“Ah, so you must know Marcos too.” Joshua played his part well, turning back to Noah with a pleasant interest. “His wife’s twin brother and I go way back.” Way back meaning a crash course the night before in everything they may need to know about Malik should Noah choose to ask, which he wouldn’t because he’d only met Malik once at Mark and Hazel’s wedding. Noah was too inebriated that evening to remember anyway. This was the perfect cover.
“Yes, Mark and I go way back as well.” Noah sat on the corner of his desk, already relaxed and with zero suspicion in his tone. “You could say Alex and I knew Mark before he was a famous prince.” Noah chuckled and the other three joined him. This was working brilliantly.
“Anyway, we’re heading over to the county building so I can introduce them to my new girlfriend. I’m sure you know her. Krystina over at the register of deeds office.”
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t know her. But I don’t spend much time over at the county building. Got enough on my plate dealing with challenges in the city to worry about the county.” His tone was earnest. From what Alex could tell, Noah didn’t know Krystina. Interesting. Noah turned to Alex and clapped him on the shoulder. “You didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend. You stud. We just went to dinner the other night and you never mentioned her?”
“I just met her actually,” Alex said. “We had our first date two days ago.”
“Well good for you.” Noah turned to the Roland’s. “We’ve been trying to get this kid dating for a while now. The rest of us are all married, and he hasn’t even gotten started.”
They all chuckled again, and Alex couldn’t help thinking of the woman in Noah’s front office who didn’t seem to have any respect for Noah’s marital status, but he didn’t bring that up.
“Well, if things progress and we start dating seriously, I’ll be sure to introduce you,” Alex said, reaching out and shaking Noah’s hand again. “Good to see you buddy. We’re going to head out.”
“It was nice to meet you, folks.” Noah stood again, all smiles and welcoming, his politician mask back in place. “Welcome to the community.”
“Thank you, Mayor Adlin. It was nice to meet you as well.” They all shook hands again, and Alex led Joshua and Amber out of his office, stopping by Cheryl’s desk for more introductions. Alex fought the urge to scowl at Noah’s secretary before leading his new friends out the door.
“The drone footage is quite clear,” Mark said, displaying his recordings on the wide screen television in his living room. “Every one of those documents checks out. They were brazen about the placement, too. The solar arrays are hiding in plain sight.”
“It’s almost like they expected no one would figure out what they were doing,” Alex said, stepping closer to the television. The video footage was such high resolution he could read the license plate on one of the cars in a parking lot.
They were finally done with dinner and helping put the kids to bed and could get down to the real reason Alex had driven over to Mark and Hazel’s house again for the third time in three days.
“Do you ever take your high-end real estate clients into the courthouse to show them around?” Mark asked.
“I have a couple of friends who are looking to buy a home in the Valley and thought you were the perfect real estate agent needed for the job.”
“How can you think about work at a time like this?” Alex’s jaw dropped. “A man was murdered last night, the company we own is involved in a government scandal that could tear this town apart, and I just found out my new girlfriend is involved in said government scandal.”
“Allegedly involved,” Mark said. “You have no proof of that. Anyway, my friends should be arriving in a little while and will stay with me tonight so we can go over all the files they’ll need to help them get started with their investigation. Tomorrow they will check themselves into a hotel in town and show up at your office for their one o’clock appointment.”
“I don’t have a one o’clock appointment,” Alex said, confused. “Unless my secretary set it up without asking me first.”
“She did,” Mark said. “I spoke with her a couple hours ago. I told her there was no need to call and let you know because you were on your way to my house and I’d tell you when you got here.”
“I took the liberty of having her pull the files and arrange showings on the houses they’d like to see, all of which are within half-mile of one of the properties that has two solar arrays.”
“Wait, who are these friends of yours?”
“Mr. and Mrs. John Doe,” Mark said with a straight face. “Kidding. I’m sure they’ll have aliases and it’s best if we don’t know their real names anyway. Just do your job as their real estate agent and they’ll do their jobs as…” Mark let his sentence hang, waiting for Alex to pick up on his clue.
“Federal agents.” Alex saw the brilliance of the plan and thanked his lucky stars that he’d chosen real estate development as a profession.
As if on cue a silver Cadillac Escalade pulled down the long driveway toward Mark’s home. Subtle. Non-descript and understated to blend in with the passing traffic but elite enough to realistically be the property of a high-end real estate client. Smart.
A man and woman exited the vehicle and scanned the horizon before walking up the sidewalk. Again, nothing extraordinary about either of them. No features that stood out. No visible tattoos or piercings. No colored hair or elaborate clothes. Two individuals designed to blend. They were perfect.
“Welcome,” Mark said, holding open the door and reaching out a hand. “I’m Marcos Sayid and this is my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson. My wife and children have retired for the night, so you’ll meet them in the morning.”
“Thank you,” the man said. “You will know us as Joshua and Amber Roland. We will be your point of contact for the duration of the investigation, however long that lasts.” They all shook one another’s hands but were all business.
“How about if you start by showing us the evidence you’ve gathered so far, and we’ll proceed from there,” Amber said.
They closed the door to the darkened forest, quieting the ever-present rush of the waterfall, and worked late into the night.
“Turn on your local news.” Mark’s usual calm and collected voice conveyed enough panic that Alex didn’t question his command. He hurried out to the lobby of his office building where they kept a television streaming all day on a national news channel to entertain the guests waiting to meet with an agent. He used the remote to scroll to a local station and his jaw dropped at the headline of the breaking news story.
“Environmental activist, Abe Nader found murdered near his home on Hightower Street.”
“No…” Alex collapsed into a nearby chair. “How could they?”
“I need to make a second call to my contact at the Bureau,” Mark said. “The situation has escalated, and they need to be involved immediately.”
“Okay,” Alex answered. “I want to listen to the rest of the story anyway. Talk to you later.” Alex touched the screen on his phone to end the call with Mark and sat watching the story unfold on the television.
Yellow caution tape surrounded the scene of the crime preventing reporters from gaining close access, but Alex could see in the background that Abe was found on a property with two solar arrays. Whoever had done this was sending a clear message to the community: this is what happens to people who dig too deep.
Alex was glad he and Krystina had taken the time to make all the copies needed, and to save the evidence on three separate thumb drives. Anyone doing extensive research in the next few days would be under tremendous scrutiny.
“Krystina,” Alex whispered. Was she safe? Was she afraid? He jumped from the chair and hurried back to his office. Grabbing his car keys and sport coat, Alex hurriedly told his secretary he was heading to the county building, which was only a few blocks away.
Alex screeched to a halt in the county courthouse parking lot and hurried inside before remembering the metal detector. Any metal he was wearing or carrying would have to be removed prior to walking into the building. When he wasn’t in a hurry, this was no big deal. But when he was hurrying to get to a person he cared about, the process was tedious and intrusive.
He emptied his pockets of change, slipped off his watch then stepped through the metal detector, which promptly started beeping, announcing to everyone in the lobby that he was in violation. He realized his belt buckle had probably set off the detector and slipped that from around his waist. He felt like he was stripping in front of the courthouse patrons. After successfully stepping through the machine, he stared at the floor in embarrassment while redressing.
Once he’d finally passed the rigorous inspection by the security guard, he hurried down the hall to the now-familiar register of deeds office where he burst in the door to see Krystina’s worried expression. Her shoulders slumped in relief and she hurried from her desk.
“I can’t believe Abe’s been murdered,” she said, tucking herself into his arms. “He was just in my office a few days ago.”
“Really?” Alex pulled back and looked down at her creased brow. “You didn’t tell me he’d been here recently.”
“Oh? Well, he was looking for the same thing you were looking for,” Krystina said.
“I’m surprised you didn’t mention that.” Alex felt a frown pull at his mouth.
“I was distracted by your handsome face,” she said, reaching a hand up to touch his cheek.
“Distracted…” Alex whispered, taking a step back. That’s exactly how he’d felt since the time he first met Krystina two days ago. Distracted. Almost purposely distracted. Was she in on the scandal? He tried to shake off the thought. “How many times has Abe been into your office?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Many times. He liked to use the computers here at my office because the people who run the county GIS can tell who logs into the system and where they are, what IP address they’re using, that kind of thing.”
“Why did he want to access the GIS?” Alex glanced over at one of the computers here in Krystina’s office, which were available for use by the public.
“The online Geographic Information System shows who owns a particular property as well as the tax information, classification, school district, that kind of thing.”
“Why would he want to know all that?” Alex asked.
“He was mostly using the aerial photos on the base maps, trying to confirm and back up his ground truthing.”
“And he couldn’t do all that from home?”
“He swore they knew every time he logged onto the system. He insisted he was being stalked and trailed and harassed,” Krystina said. “Guess he was right.”
“Who is ‘they’?” Alex held up air quotes.
“I don’t know?” Krystina shrugged. “Whoever was harassing him?”
“Are we in danger from having done all this research?” Alex asked.
“Nah”—she waved her hand dismissively— “You’re working with me. You should be fine.”
“Are you… in on it?”
“In on what?” Her innocent blue eyes were almost too innocent.
Puzzle pieces fell into place in rapid succession and Alex took another step backwards, toward the door to Krystina’s office. She had been tongue-tied when he first met her, startled that he was standing in her office. She was all too willing to help him, as if working with him would throw him off her trail. She had perfect access to every property record in the county and knew more about the tax records than anyone else.
She was the perfect point of contact for everyone else involved in the cover-up. And he had fallen right into her charms. What a sucker he’d been.
“I need to… to take off,” Alex stuttered, reaching for the door handle.
“Where are you going?” she asked, nervous panic in her words.
Wouldn’t you like to know? Alex thought. “I just, ya know, have something I gotta do.”
“Can I come with you? I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
“I can take the rest of the afternoon off,” she said.
Just like that. She was making things too easy. The guilt was written all over her face. The message was clear. He was next. Abe Nader was a warning.
“Alex? Are you okay?” Krystina asked, taking another step closer. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe I’m coming down with something,” he said, his stomach clenching in panic. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
Alex didn’t wait for her to answer, just took off running down the hall toward the exit door where the intrusive metal detector tried to keep the bad guys out. Stupid machine didn’t realize the bad guys were already on the inside.
He nodded to the security guard as he pushed open the heavy door and pulled his cell phone from his pocket while hurrying toward his car.
“Your Highness, I think Krystina’s one of them.”
“Everybody decent?” Alex called out playfully as he opened the door to Mark and Hazel’s house and stepped into the foyer holding Krystina’s hand in his.
“Depends on what you consider ‘decent’,” Hazel called out from where she was seated on the couch with her legs pulled up onto the sofa, an afghan tucked around her feet. She placed a bookmark into the paperback she’d been reading and set it aside. “I mean, are we talking words or deeds?”
“I’m talking clothing,” Alex said, brushing his feet on the rug by the door. “The last time I left here there were subtle innuendos that my presence in your home was nearing the end of its life.”
“Oh! You brought your new girlfriend!” Hazel noticed Krystina when she and Alex came fully into view, and she sat up from the couch, then quickly righted herself from the unbalanced weight of having a protruding belly. “I’m so excited to meet you.”
“How do you know she’s my girlfriend?” Alex asked, baiting his cousin.
“Oh please.” Hazel rolled her eyes. “You’re holding her hand, and Mark said yesterday you couldn’t take your eyes off each other. I’m so glad to meet you.” She pushed past Alex and grabbed Krystina in a quick hug.
“Nice to meet you as well,” Krystina said, hugging her back. “How far along are you?”
“Only twenty-two weeks,” Hazel said, placing her hand on top of her belly. “Prince Hayden is scheduled to make his appearance sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving.”
“You’ve already named him? Since I was here yesterday?”
“We named him a few days ago. You just never asked. Hayden was Mark’s first choice and as soon as I saw the ultrasound, I agreed wholeheartedly. He just looks like a Hayden.”
“Speaking of, where is my prince this evening?” Alex asked.
“Teaching his sons to read, probably.” Hazel waved her hand dismissively.
“Aren’t they a little young for that?”
“I was joking, sort of. They like to read stories at bedtime, and he points to each word as he’s reading them.”
Just then a naked and sudsy wet two-year-old ran through the living room giggling from escaping the bathtub.
“You were saying?” Hazel asked with a straight face. “About whether we all had clothing on? There’s your answer.”
Mark hurried into the room carrying a fluffy towel, his t-shirt and jeans soaked from attempting bath time by himself. He stopped with an exasperated crease to his brow. “The good news is the baby is asleep and in his crib. The bad news is Aaron’s sheets need to be changed and he’s very slippery when covered in bubble bath. We may need to re-think this potty-training thing.”
“I believe I did mention that Pull-ups were still a requirement at bedtime,” Hazel said.
Alex leaned down and caught Aaron in his arms as he tried to run past, and managed to hand him off to Mark, who promptly snuggled the little guy into a towel and flew him airplane style back toward the bathroom.
“See why Mark’s in charge of bath time now?” Hazel asked, resting her hand on her baby belly.
“I’ll tell you what,” Alex started. “You and Krystina get to know each other, and I’ll go pull the sheets off Aaron’s bed and toss them in the washing machine. Sound like a plan?”
“I like that plan.” Hazel resumed her seat and patted the sofa to welcome Krystina to join her.
Alex heard Krystina giggle as she sunk onto the sofa, and Alex headed down the hallway toward the boys’ bedroom. He turned on the tiny lamp near Aaron’s bed, careful not to make too much noise while stripping Aaron’s sheets, thankful Mark and Hazel were smart enough to use a plastic barrier between the mattress and bedding.
The washer and dryer were on the other side of the kitchen, near the door to the garage, so Alex held his nose while hurrying in that direction. He didn’t understand why washing machines weren’t situated closer to the bedrooms. That would make more sense.
He heard soft laughter from the living room and smiled that his new girlfriend was fitting right into his family. If they were going to have a future together, which he suspected they would, this was a huge requirement.
After starting a load of laundry, Alex headed back toward the bedrooms and guessed correctly that sheets would be in the closet in the boys’ bedroom. After putting clean sheets on the bed, Alex headed back to the living room.
“So, Krystina, how many kids do you want to have?” Alex asked, slumping into a chair. “Ya know, hypothetically?”
Both ladies laughed at his question.
Mark, still covered in water, carried a sleepy and snuggly little Aaron out to lay him in Hazel’s lap with his footie pajamas and blankie. “I’ll change my clothes and come back for him.”
“If we have children as adorable as this little guy, we can have as many as you want,” Krystina said, reaching over to grab one of Aaron’s toes through his footie.
“In other words, one?”
They laughed at him again and Aaron tucked himself up close to his mom with wide eyes, pulled his foot away from Krystina and stuck his thumb in his mouth.
Mark entered the room again wearing comfortable-looking pajama bottoms and a clean t-shirt. “Come here, buddy.” He reached for his son, pulling him gently from Hazel’s arms and Aaron rested his head on Mark’s shoulder, still with his thumb in his mouth, and carrying his blankie.
“Okay, maybe two,” Alex said. They chuckled again.
While waiting for Mark to finish Aaron’s bedtime routine, Alex and Krystina took the files they’d brought and spread them out carefully on the large dining room table.
“Wow, there are a lot of them,” Hazel said, coming up behind them. “You’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, it’s obvious we have a problem,” Alex said. “The challenge next will be determining how deep into the local government and community the corruption goes.”
“I’ll make a phone call tomorrow,” Mark said as he walked into the room. “For now, keep this really close to your chests. Let the FBI do their job and the rest of us can go about our usual routine. I’ll casually do some drone flying and see what I can record. Even documenting a few of them will strengthen the case.”
“Can we leave these copies here with you?” Alex asked. “They’ll be safer. We also have backups on three thumb drives. I’ll keep one, Krystina can keep one, and you guys keep one.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark said, carefully packing the files away into an accordion file. “For now, let’s sit and chat. I want to hear all about your date.”
They enjoyed an hour of getting to know one another, Mark and Hazel telling funny and embarrassing stories about Alex and enjoyed a lot of laughter at his expense. When Hazel started yawning, Alex took that as their cue and wrapped up the night.
After a peaceful twenty-minute drive back to Kingston, Alex pulled his car into Krystina’s driveway. Opening the door for her to step from his car, Alex was tempted to pull her close for a goodnight kiss but held back. Instead, she reached up and kissed him on his cheek, then waved lightly as she walked up the sidewalk to her house.
He drove home with a cheesy smile on his face.
“I figured we’d better go out to lunch before we get started with research or we might end up with takeout again,” Alex said, holding open the passenger door to his Porsche and offering Krystina his hand.
“Why thank you, kind sir.” Krystina smiled playfully as she slipped into the sleek leather seat.
Alex was momentarily distracted by the way her otherwise professional skirt opened at the knee in a slit that suddenly revealed part of her thigh. Get your mind out of the gutter, Alex! he silently warned himself before closing the door and heading around the front of the car to climb in the driver’s seat.
“So, where are you taking me?” Krystina asked with excitement in her crystal blue eyes.
“I considered Mexican,” Alex answered, turning his head to see behind the car before pulling out into traffic. “But then I figured you may not want to spend the afternoon with me in an enclosed office.”
Krystina leaned her head back in a naturally playful laugh. Alex was surprised how quickly he felt comfortable with her enough to joke about flatulence.
He could tell she wasn’t faking her attraction to him or pretending to be something she wasn’t. Krystina honestly had a crush on Alex before they’d even met and now that he was pursuing her, she fell right into the role of girlfriend before they’d gone on their first official date.
It was times like this that he wished he had a mom he could call to tell her he’d met the girl of his dreams. Although he missed his mom, the older he got the less he remembered about her. He was raised by a wonderful single father, but he was a guy. This was the kind of news a man wants to tell his mom. Maybe he’d talk to his cousin, Hazel. That gave him an idea.
“Hey, I think once we gather as much research as we can, we should take everything over to Mark and Hazel’s house,” Alex said. “You’ll love my cousin. She’s totally cool.”
“Wait, Hazel’s your cousin?” Krystina asked. “The prince’s wife?”
“And you’re his… advisor?”
“What do you advise him about?”
“It’s more of a companion situation,” Alex explained. “Someone to see things from over his shoulder. Someone to watch everything that’s going on in the fringe and protect him.”
“Like a bodyguard?”
“Does Mark look like he needs a bodyguard?” Alex glanced over and raised his eyebrows.
“Well, if I needed a bodyguard, I’d want someone strong like you to protect me.” Krystina reached over and squeezed Alex’s arm with one hand, which he promptly grasped and pulled into his, intertwining their fingers.
“Too soon?” Alex held up their adjoined hands.
“Not too soon for me,” Krystina said with a soft blush on her cheeks.
“So, where are you taking me for lunch?”
“Are you up for some Middle-Eastern fare?” Alex asked. “They probably won’t be as authentic as what’s served at the palace in Madain Saleh, but I’ve heard good reviews for the Garden House down in Rosedale. It’s only fifteen minutes from here.”
“That sounds awesome,” Krystina said. “I’ve never had Middle-Eastern food. And I have no idea how good the food was at the palace, so the bar is set pretty low.”
“Hey, I’m trying to impress you, since this is our first official date.”
“It seems like we’ve known each other a lot longer than one day,” Krystina said, her voice more serious.
“How long have you had a crush on me?” Her instant attraction the day prior had taken Alex by surprise.
“Since I saw you at a campaign rally a year ago.” She bit her lower lip.
“Well I wish I’d known that,” Alex said. “We could have been married and expecting our first child by now.”
She threw her head back and laughed again. “Then I wouldn’t have anything to daydream about.” She squeezed his hand playfully.
He wondered if it was too soon to be joking about things like marriage and kids. But if their banter was lighthearted and neither of them became obsessive or something, they could flirt about more serious topics.
When they arrived at the restaurant, Alex hurried around to open her car door and helped her step out, being careful not to focus too much on her exposed legs. As he clicked the key fob, he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm as if leading her into a ballroom rather than a semi-casual restaurant.
The food was better than Alex expected and found the authenticity better than the palace because they weren’t trying to be pretentious. The falafel was handmade, the pita chips and muhammara were fresh and zesty, and the blueberry fruit drink was the perfect way to cool the palate.
They kept conversation light and playful throughout the meal, and on the drive back to Kingston.
But they took their research seriously all afternoon. By the end of the workday, they had scanned, saved, and printed hundreds of documents.
“Are you ready to go meet two of the most spoiled and adorable little princes in the world?”
“Only if you’re ready to introduce your new girlfriend to your cousin.” Krystina raised her eyebrows playfully.
“Dang, I only had to take you on one date and you’ve already agreed to be my girlfriend?”
“Well… you haven’t exactly asked me to be your girlfriend,” she said.
“Will you be my girlfriend?” Alex quickly responded.
“Yes!” Krystina practically bounced on her toes.
“Then, yes, I’m ready to introduce my new girlfriend to my cousin.” Alex was tempted to pull her in close for a first kiss but knew it was way too soon for that. Instead he held open the door to her office and she reached in to lower the light switch and locked the door behind them.
“Well… that was fun,” Mark said, stepping up to the raised stand where the council members sat in a semicircle. “Are all your council meetings that exciting?”
“Just the past few weeks,” Alex answered, glancing sidelong to where Drew and Noah’s heads were close together in a heated exchange. Alex took advantage of their distraction and spoke low enough to be heard by only Mark. “What did you think?”
“I think I’m going to head over to the county jail and bail out our friend, Abe, and meet you at the restaurant,” Mark said. “But don’t tell the guys that’s what I’m doing. I want their guards down as much as possible this evening. Follow my lead, and cover for me.”
“Always,” Alex answered.
“Gentlemen,” Mark called out with a good-natured friendliness that Alex could tell was fake. “I have a couple of errands to run and I’ll meet the three of you at the Le Canard Enchaine. I called ahead and reserved the private dining room. My treat.”
“Why, thank you, Your Highness,” Drew said with a mock bow.
“Would you like to ride together?” Alex held up the keys to his car, realizing too late that his little Porsche wouldn’t fit all three of them. He suspected they wouldn’t choose to ride with him anyway, but it was fun to watch them squirm.
“I need to, uh, drop these files off to my office and then I’ll take my Caddie,” Noah said.
“I’ll come with you,” Drew was quick to add, stepping closer to Noah.
“Sounds like I’ll meet you at the restaurant,” Alex said, backing away. The more time he spent with them, the surer he was that they were hiding their illegal activity and nervous to be alone with the prince and his advisor.
After Alex parallel parked his little Porsche in front of the restaurant, he pulled out his phone and took a moment to send a text to Krystina. Thanks again for all your help this afternoon. I enjoyed getting to know you.
A text almost immediately followed. You too. How did your meeting go?
Abe Nader was arrested for unruly behavior at a public meeting, Alex texted back.
What?!?! That poor guy.
Mark headed over to go bail him out and we’re meeting for a late dinner in a few minutes with the mayor and Drew.
I look forward to hearing about your meeting,” Krystina texted.
Are you free for lunch tomorrow?
With you? Definitely.
I’ll be at your office by about 11:45 tomorrow morning.
It’s a date, she texted back.
You’re right, Alex thought. It is a date. In answer to her text, he sent a smiling emoji.
Alex tucked his phone in his pocket, exited his car, and clicked the key fob to turn on the alarm system. He was the first to arrive at the upscale French restaurant and told the host that he was with the Sayid party. He was shown to a private dining area where he requested a bottle of red wine, four glasses of ice water, and French bread with oil for dipping. He wanted the guys fed immediately but relaxed and open to spilling the truth about their shady dealings.
Noah and Drew arrived five minutes later, and Mark ten minutes after that. They spoke casually while ordering entrees and an outside observer would suspect nothing but a group of friends getting together for dinner. When the waitresses left the room, Mark leaned forward.
“So… this kook who showed up at the meeting,” Mark started. “Should we be concerned? I mean, the four of us have a lot of skin in the game and if someone in the local government is doing something illegal—as this guy claims—the four of us could be implicated.”
“I think he’s just a crazy guy rambling on about things he knows nothing about,” Drew said dismissively.
“If there was something going on in the local government, I’d know about it,” Noah said with a creased brow. “I am the mayor after all.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Mark said. “That you would have your pulse on the affairs of the community. Could you maybe look into the claim? See if this guy is crazy or legit.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Noah said. Alex was impressed with his acting skills. “I mean, who is this guy Abe Nader, anyway? Who is he to accuse us of wrongdoing? Our business has added prosperity to this community. We have provided jobs and clean energy, and even the housing market is booming. Am I right councilman?”
“As a real estate agent, I can confirm that the housing market is indeed booming,” Alex responded. Noah answered with a satisfied smile and Alex added a caveat. “But I don’t want prosperity to come at the expense of legality.”
“That’s right,” Drew said, as if he agreed wholeheartedly. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”
“Well, I feel better knowing the three of you will be looking into the claims,” Mark said as if he had no intention of further involvement. “It pays to have friends on the city council.”
“And in the mayor’s office.” Noah held up his glass of wine for an informal toast of camaraderie.
“Here, here,” Drew said, also raising his glass.
Without preamble, Alex and Mark lifted their glasses of wine and touched the liquid to their lips before setting the glasses back on the table. They’d gotten very good at toasting without actually drinking alcohol since the early days of Mark’s coronation as Crown Prince.
Noah and Drew didn’t seem to notice as they each downed half their glass of the expensive wine Alex had chosen. The food soon followed, and the rest of the meal was spent in casual banter and reminiscing about their younger selves. As the night wore on, and the guys finished off the bottle of wine, Alex and Mark gleaned many details about Noah and Drew’s friends throughout the lower levels of the government.
That meal was worth every penny of the hundred- and twenty-dollars’ worth of food and the two-hundred-dollar bottle of wine. Alex had a feeling their town would have some visitors from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the next couple of weeks.
“Why am I not surprised?” Alex said after opening the door to Noah’s office to find his secretary, Cheryl sitting on his lap with her arms around his neck. Both of their smiles fell from their faces when Alex and Mark walked in the door.
Noah sat forward in his chair, nearly knocking Cheryl to the floor. “Your Highness, what are you doing here?”
“I thought we were meeting for dinner.” Mark raised his eyebrows and Alex could hear the underlying humor and disgust behind the simple sentence.
“We were supposed to have dinner after the city council meeting,” Noah said as his secretary scooted quickly past Mark and Alex, out the door of Noah’s office.
“Which starts in ten minutes,” Alex said, glancing at his watch. “Perhaps it’s time we head down to the chambers.”
“Right, yes, of course.” Noah hurriedly tucked a small flask from on top of his desk into a drawer, gathered a stack of papers, straightened his tie and slipped his sport coat over his shoulders. By the time he stood tall and confident he almost looked like the upstanding mayor his constituents elected him to be.
Alex bit back his frustration, wondering why he ever supported this man’s campaign. Right. Because they’d been friends for years. If what he suspected was true, that friendship had taken a sharp turn for the worse.
“Shall we?” Mark held out his arm as if inviting Noah to lead the way.
Noah raised his chin and strode past his former college roommates and business partners, the smell of liquor on his breath. Before leaving his outer office, he stopped at Cheryl’s desk. She held out a mint that had already been unwrapped and placed it on his tongue. “Thank you darling.” Noah leaned over and kissed her on her cheek and kept walking toward the council chambers as if nothing had happened.
Alex rolled his eyes at Mark and they fell in behind Noah. This gave them the perfect vantage point to see how others reacted to Mayor Noah Adlin. They all loved him. He was like a celebrity handing out hundred dollar bills all the way down the hall and into the council chambers.
Noah stopped to shake hands and pat people on the back, took a moment to converse with the reporters and camera crew at the back of the room, touched the shoulders of several people in the audience of the chambers before sauntering up to his place of honor as if claiming a throne.
Before taking a seat in the audience, Mark strode to the front of the room to greet their other college roommate, Andrew, where he sat on the council. Drew’s jaw dropped as he shook Mark’s hand, then he plastered an obviously fake smile on his face and a nervous glance passed between Noah and Drew.
Yeah… they were guilty. Now the burden of proof was on Alex and Mark.
The room erupted in whispers as the kook from the previous meeting made his way to the front row near where the podium waited for public comment. Mark raised his eyebrows at Alex, and he nodded subtly, answering in their nonverbal communication that this was indeed the man they’d been talking about this afternoon.
Without hesitation, Mark walked over and took a seat next to the man. “Hi, I’m Mark.” He held out his hand.
“I know who you are,” the man said without turning to look at Mark or lifting his hand in greeting.
Before any of them could react further, the chairman of the council called out, “Let’s call the meeting to order. All rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Alex held his right hand over his heart and recited the pledge along with everyone else in the room, including Prince Marcos Sayid. For the first time it occurred to Alex to wonder which sovereign nation would take precedence if Mark were forced to choose. He was born in the United States yet was recognized as the crown prince of Madain Saleh. Before he could think on it further, the oath was complete, and the members present were seated.
The motion to approve the agenda for the council meeting was passed unanimously and then the chairman nervously invited anyone in the audience who wished to make a public comment to step to the podium, state their name and address, and keep their comments within the allowed three minutes.
There was no surprise when the man in the front row stood and stepped to the podium. “For the record, my name is Abe Nader and I live at 501 North Hightower Road.”
The clerk typed into her laptop as the man spoke.
“I warned you last week that you have illegal activity happening right before your eyes and you didn’t believe me,” Abe said, then held up a packet of papers not unlike the files Alex had been digging through with Mark and Krystina that afternoon. “Here is your proof! I have seen with my own eyes the properties that have two solar arrays where the county records state there should only be one. Is it any wonder that two of the four owners of Domrey, Incorporated sit on this council? Does it surprise anyone that our good mayor is another part owner? And this man as well.”
Abe turned and pointed at Mark, who offered a resigned smile to Abe before the man faced forward again to continue his tirade.
“Why aren’t you obeying the laws you set for the community? Who is pocketing the money coming in from government subsidies? How many people in our city and county government are involved in his scandal? You’re all a bunch of lawless men and need to be removed from office!”
By this time, Abe had raised his voice well beyond what was appropriate for a public meeting and had gone past his allotted three minutes.
“Sheriff,” Noah called out. “Could you please remove this man from our council chambers for unruly behavior?”
As the sheriff stepped forward, Abe called over the excited mutterings of the crowd, “Your lawlessness will bring about the destruction of this community!”
The sheriff placed cuffs around Abe’s wrists.
“Mark my words! Whatever you do to me will be done to you! You bring this upon yourselves!”
With that, the heavy doors to the council chambers closed, carrying the man’s continued shouting down the hall.
“Well, I can see why you’re not answering my calls and texts,” Mark said from the doorway.
Alex nearly fell over from where he was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up, openly flirting with his new friend, Krystina. “Your Highness? What are you doing here?”
As Mark chuckled, Alex sprang to his feet, nearly knocking over his Styrofoam cup of root beer. Fast food wrappers and empty plastic bowls from their chicken salads were strewn across the table in the back room of the county register of deeds office, along with valuable maps and engineering drawings.
Krystina also stood, and her jaw dropped when she saw who was standing in the doorway to her office.
“I see you’re hard at work,” Mark said with a gleam in his eyes. He stepped around the table and held out a hand to Krystina. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Marcos Sayid, but most of my friends call me Mark.”
“I’m Krystina,” she whispered and hesitantly placed her hand in his. She didn’t seem as star-struck by being introduced to Mark as she had been when she’d met Alex, which made him happy. If anything, she was nervous and intimidated by Mark.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Alex said. “Mark doesn’t have friends; he has subjects. And they all call him ‘Your Highness’.”
“Very funny, Councilman,” Mark said playfully. “You and your constituents are not my subjects. But I would hope we could still be friends.”
“Fine, if you insist.” Alex turned to Krystina. “Mark and I were best friends before I became his advisor, so I’ll let that one pass.”
“So… you really are a prince?” Krystina asked, nervously looking up at Mark.
“That’s what the tell me,” Mark said.
“How did you find me over here?” Alex asked, glancing at his watch. “Is it already time for our meeting?”
“Your secretary told me the location where she had your take-out lunch delivered,” Mark said. “And no, we still have a few hours before your meeting. But I want to see what you’ve come up with.”
“A lot, actually,” Alex said, pulling up an extra chair for Mark and seating himself back at the large wooden table that dominated the small office.
Before returning to her seat, Krystina gathered up the fast food wrappers and shoved them in the wastebasket near the door. As if reading Alex’s mind, she pulled the door to her office shut and sat across from him.
Alex forced himself to focus on his prince and the potential scandals they were entrenched in and try to ignore the beautiful blonde who had monopolized his afternoon. When he had committed his life of service to Prince Marcos, he made a vow to be his helper and advisor above all else.
If this budding relationship was meant to be, Krystina would still be sitting across from him in an hour or two after he’d given his full attention to Mark. Still, Alex couldn’t help glancing in her direction and sharing a quick little grin. She winked back at him and he cleared his throat, forcing his eyes back to the engineering plans for one of the properties in question.
“This is just one example,” Alex said, pointing at the drawing. “This is the rendering of the solar array that was planned for this property, and these are the tax records on file with the county.” Alex handed Mark a file.
“Looks good so far,” Mark said, spreading the file in front of him on the table.
“And this”—Alex placed a printed map on top of everything— “is a that same property on Google Maps, the date on which was updated last month.”
“Whoa.” Mark held up the map. “There are clearly two solar arrays on that landscape.”
“Your Highness, we have a problem.”
“I think we should change our tactics at our dinner meeting tonight,” Mark said. “I think we should talk about the kook at the council meeting and see how they react.”
“I’ll follow your lead on that,” Alex said. “And Krystina and I will keep sifting through files to prepare a case.”
“We have no idea how deep this goes into local government and all the contractors involved,” Mark said. “Are you prepared to stand firm if—when—the FBI gets involved?”
“What?” Krystina interrupted. “You want to get the FBI involved?”
“Yes, that is the appropriate next step in a case like this.” Mark’s tone was completely serious. “For now, this information can’t leave this room or all three of our livelihoods—and perhaps our lives—are in jeopardy.”
“Okay,” Krystina whispered, her eyes wide.
“I’m going to scan these documents and save them to several secure locations,” Alex said. “I wouldn’t want this evidence to miraculously disappear from county records.”
“We have a scanner right here.” Krystina stood and crossed the small office. “We could get started right now.”
“Let’s do this,” Mark said, placing the map on top of the file. He shoved the whole stack gently to the other side of the table. “Start with this one.”
“Councilman—” The woman at the front desk of the county register of deeds office had wide, excited blue eyes and a gaping jaw, almost as if she was seeing her teen idol in person. Alex turned around to see who was behind him and realized she was looking at him. She seemed to shake off her stupor. “Can I help you?” She sounded more hopeful that she could help him rather than eager to do her job.
Alex glanced at the nameplate on her desk. “Well, Krystina, I need to pull some land records. Is that something you could help me with?” Alex chuckled softly as Krystina tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ears and blushed.
“I’d love to help you.” Krystina answered as if he’d asked her to take a ride in his Porsche. Hmm… tempting. Still she continued sitting in her desk chair gazing up at him.
“Could you help me… right now?” Alex raised his eyebrows at her.
“Oh! Of course.” Krystina jumped from her chair. “I’m so sorry. I got distracted for a minute. It won’t happen again, Councilman.”
“You can just call me Alex,” he said.
“Not if I want to keep my job.” She snorted, shaking her head. “We have strict rules about using people’s title rather than first names.”
Having been around the Sayid royal family for years, Alex was used to everyone calling each other by their titles, but he wasn’t usually one with a title. Running for political office had changed many things about his life but he wasn’t expecting to be treated like a celebrity.
“Whoever wrote the rules didn’t realize we’d have such young, hot councilmen,” Krystina mumbled.
“Or maybe they did,” Alex said in a husky voice, leaning down to look her in the eye. “Maybe whoever wrote the rules predicted we’d someday have young, hot councilmen to distract the staff and throw them off their game.”
“Huh?” Krystina startled. “Did I say that out loud?”
“Yeah, you did.” Alex rubbed his chin, pretending to be in deep thought. “What if we were friends? Could they stop you from using my first name then?”
“F—friends?” Krystina shook off a stupor again. “No, I mean, yes. They can stop me. At the office, I should always call you councilman.” She nodded her head definitively.
“But if, let’s just say, I took you out to a late lunch or something? Would you be allowed to call me Alex then?” Was he really hitting on the girl at the register of deeds office? He cringed and couldn’t believe the words had left his mouth. Maybe it was the romantic vibe that had been in the air over at Mark and Hazel’s house or the confidence from knowing she’d called him young and hot.
“Yes, I’d love to go to lunch with you,” Krystina said, then her eyes grew wide and she must have realized what she’d said. “I mean, yes, I’d be allowed to call you Alex if we were out to lunch.”
“Are you free at one?” Alex glanced at his Rolex to note they had forty-five minutes between now and then. Was he being too forward?
Krystina giggled. “I’ll have to see if I can get my work done by then. But we’ve gotten so off track. What was it you came into the office for again?”
“I need to pull records of every property where a solar array has been installed,” Alex said.
“But… there are hundreds of them.” Krystina gulped.
“Sounds like you and I are going to be spending a great deal of time together.” Alex winked at Krystina.
“This project might take us long past lunch time,” she replied, flirting replacing her nervousness.
“We’ll just have to take a break from our project to go get a bite to eat,” Alex suggested. “We could discuss land records and property deeds over a nice chicken salad.”
“I love chicken salad.” Krystina’s husky voice was practically a whisper.
“Sounds like a date, then.” Alex stepped closer. “Shall we do some research first?”
“Research?” She shook off another bout of stupor. “Yes, land records. Right this way.”
Krystina turned on her heel and led Alex to the file cabinets and computer terminals where they could view paper and digital copies.
This afternoon was shaping up better than Alex could have imagined. He almost wanted to thank whoever was behind the government scandal because they led him to Krystina.