“Your Highness, may I have a word?” Eli stopped in the entryway to his father’s office, preferring to be invited rather than barge in unannounced.
“Come in, son.” Prince Omar glanced up from the memo he’d been writing and removed the small, round reading glasses from his nose. His business suit was pristine as if he were expecting a meeting with dignitaries, not working in his office. His dark, bushy hair showed a sprinkling of salt and pepper grey, lending an air of sophistication as he pushed into middle age. At forty-eight years old, he was living in his prime, honed, trained, ready to take over as leader of the kingdom should the king pass away. He was the epitome of a crown prince. If Eli worked strategically, he could learn a great deal from his father. “What can I do for you?”
“Have you spoken to the king about my new assignment?” Eli stepped tentatively into Omar’s workspace. There was nothing comforting or inviting about this room. Where Eli had elegant bookshelves of leather-bound volumes, Omar had filing cabinets. The carpet was durable Berber when most of the palace had sculpted plush carpeting or marble. Omar’s furniture had been shipped from an office supply catalog, and Eli commissioned his furniture from expert craftsmen who carved and polished and perfected each piece. Eli wanted his office to be an extension of his home. Omar’s was designed for business. The business of running a small country.
“We’re aware of your intended appointment to the UN,” Ahmed answered the question intended for Prince Omar. Eli startled. He hadn’t realized Ahmed had been sitting in the corner at his desk. “That’s quite a tall order the king has tasked you with.” Tall was something Ahmed knew very well. He had several inches on most everyone in the palace. Lanky and towering, when he stood in front of a person, his shoulders hunched forward looking down with beady eyes and a straight, thin nose.
“Ahmed, I am an adult, and a prince,” Eli said, holding his chin in the air, refusing to allow his father’s advisor to intimidate him. “I would suggest you start treating me as such.”
“I’ve watched you grow from a little boy as I’ve served my charge, and I find it difficult to think of you as anything less than the pest who was always underfoot.” Ahmed sneered and looked down with disdain.
“My father is not your charge,” Eli said with confidence. “He is your prince. And you are his advisor. You might want to remember your place.”
“Gentlemen,” Prince Omar interrupted. “I’d suggest you both remember your places. You are in my office and have requested an audience.”
“My apologies, Your Highness.” Eli bowed reverently to his father and noticed with disappointment that Ahmed stood in front of his desk and leaned back, defiant rather than submissive or apologetic.
“How can I be of assistance?” Omar asked. His pinched lips and creased brow showed his annoyance at having been interrupted. Eli decided he’d better make this meeting brief.
“The king has requested that I serve as ambassador to the United Nations and I’d like your tutelage as I prepare the fulfill that responsibility.”
“Have a seat,” Prince Omar said, sitting formally on a low sofa in front of his desk.
Eli mirrored his father’s stance, sitting on the opposite sofa, leaning forward, intentionally engaged.
Ahmed, on the other hand, slouched into one of the adjacent sofas and spread his arms across the back, one leg crossed over his other knee, showing a complete disrespect toward the two members of the royal family present, including his own prince.
Omar ignored him and continued talking to Eli. “One of the most important things about serving on the UN Security Council is that you are not only there to represent the interests of our kingdom, but also to help maintain international peace and security. Every decision you make, every discussion you are involved in, should be within the framework of protecting human rights and upholding international laws.”
“That sounds straightforward enough.” Eli nodded.
Ahmed scoffed. “Do you think it’s going to be easy?” He rolled his eyes and turned his head in mock superiority. “You’ve got a lot to learn.”
“Such as patience in dealing with obnoxious individuals who disrespect their superiors?”
“Are you calling yourself my superior?” Ahmed sat forward in an offensive posture.
“That is up for debate,” Eli said. “But your prince is most definitely your superior.”
“I think that’s enough for one day.” Omar rose from his seat, effectively ending the conversation.
“Thank you for your advice, Your Highness,” Eli said, rising quickly and bowing to his father.
“You’re welcome, Your Highness.” Omar stood and lifted his chin. “Perhaps you’d like to come have dinner with your mother and me this evening. I know the princess would enjoy your company.”
“Thank you, father, I’ll do that.” Before Eli could leave the room, he glared at Ahmed, sensing he’d won that showdown having been invited for an informal meeting at Prince Omar’s dinner table.
Eli didn’t address Ahmed, and his father’s advisor didn’t acknowledge his departure. He wondered why his father kept that vile man around.
“I have a confession, Your Highness,” Kadin said after closing Eli’s office door behind him. He strode confidently into the office and stood before his prince. “I’ve been acting as a double agent.”
Eli was confused. Savannah had left to go back to college and Eli was getting caught up with his advisor. Although he’d barely left his suite the past week, he thought this would be a quick briefing. He thought he could walk into his office and pick up with the work he’d left before his uncle passed away, before his cousin came to visit, and before he got married and flipped his life upside down. “W—what?”
“I’ve been learning things I would not have learned otherwise if you were by my side.”
“I’m not following you,” Eli said, leaning against his stately desk and crossing his arms. Eli’s office was masculine and sophisticated rather than ostentatious like his brother’s and the king’s, or stuffy and sterile like his father’s. He was comfortable here.
“There is talk among the staff and dignitaries.” Kadin paced the sculptured carpet in front of the bookcases.
“About?” Eli raised his eyebrows, waiting for his advisor to explain.
“A murder plot.” Kadin shrunk back and cowered slightly.
“My father wants to murder someone?” Eli felt his jaw go slack.
“No, Your Highness. Someone wants to murder your father.”
Eli’s stomach dropped. “Why would anyone want to murder my father?”
“To gain the Crown.”
“Shouldn’t they be plotting against Prince Marcos?”
“They don’t recognize your haughty American cousin as Crown.” Kadin held his hands in surrender when Eli narrowed his eyes at him. “Their words, not mine.”
“Who all is involved?”
“Mainly your brother, Jared. But he has gained the favor of many of the staff and dignitaries, at least he thinks he has.”
“Including yourself?” Eli felt sick.
“He thinks he has my allegiance. I have even promised to spy on my prince.”
“You have promised to spy on me?” Eli choked on the words.
“Yes, Your Highness.” Kadin held his chin high. “Until we discover what is really going on, we have to pretend that you don’t know that I’m a double agent. We have to pretend that I’m spying on you and feeding bits of information to them.”
“You need to learn all you can from your father and from the king, then I need to feed them just enough to make them think I’m double crossing you.”
“Or to make them think I’m in on the plan as well…”
“Hmm… interesting angle.”
“You and I are going to have access to the world soon,” Eli said. “We will be travelling to and from America and probably other countries in our new role as ambassador to the United Nations. Let them think we’re bringing information back to my brother as part of the plot to kill our father. They will open up to you and we will gain information even quicker.”
“Good plan,” Kadin said. “I’ll quietly share the message that you’re on board and that we’ll be working together toward the ultimate goal. To assassinate your father, the Crown Prince.”
Eli wanted to share with his advisor his allegiance to his cousin but hesitated. How much could he really trust Kadin? What if Kadin slipped and told someone that Eli was faithful to Prince Marcos and now recognized him as Crown? Eli made a snap decision to keep that information within his own thoughts. “So, what’s the next step?”
“Meet with your father. Learn all you can. Let him think you want to learn how to run the kingdom. Let him think you need information in order to serve on the UN.”
“I kind of do anyway, don’t I? This would be believable because it’s plausible.” Eli gazed out the window at the sturdy date trees that grew in the courtyard. They represented one of the kingdom’s primary exports. No better dates grew anywhere in the world than those in Madain Saleh. He turned back to Kadin. “What information would I share with you to feed to them?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to think about that. For now, trust no one, and assume everyone in this palace is on board with the plot. Yet do not show any outward sign that you are, or that you know the plan exists. I’ll continue my role as double agent, feeding them just enough information that they think I’m fully in their corner, and serving as your eyes and ears within the secret group.”
“Kadin”—Eli hesitated, wondering if he really needed to ask this question, or if he should— “Where does your allegiance lie?”
“With you, my prince.” There was no hesitation. Either he was a good liar or was indeed still loyal to Eli. For now.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Kadin’s countenance changed. He was hurt by Eli’s question.
“You said, ‘trust no one.’ Does that include my most trusted advisor?”
“Your Highness, I have been loyal to you my entire life. You’re married to my sister. My heart is broken that you would even question my loyalty.” Kadin’s shoulders slouched. His eyebrows creased and his gaze fell to the floor.
“Come here, my friend.” Eli pulled Kadin into his arms and Kadin rested his head on Eli’s shoulder. “You are my brother. More so than my own flesh and blood.”
“That’s not saying much.” Kadin chuckled, almost through tears. “Your brother’s kind of a cockroach.”
“True, but he may be our king someday, so we need to figure this out.”
“You can trust me, my prince.” Kadin pulled away and stepped back a foot, lifting his chin with confidence. “I am your servant, not theirs.”
“No, you are my brother,” Eli said. “We’re in this together.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
“In all the years I’ve been assisting you with the removal of your crown, I never dreamed I’d someday be instructing my sister on the proper procedure.” Standing behind his prince, Kadin rested his hands upon Eli’s shoulders and met his gaze in the mirror with an amused grin.
“Oh, come on, Kadin,” Eli teased his advisor. “You’ve known we were in love since we were little children.” Eli winked at Savannah, who was standing beside her brother.
“I certainly never connected these particular dots.” Kadin stepped aside and invited Savannah to come forward. “Your Highness, you may do the honors—okay, that sounds really weird calling my little sister by that title.”
“Little sister? I am older than you,” Savannah teased. Eli could see in the mirror how Kadin was almost a head taller and understood the reference.
Eli had grown up loving Savannah’s spunk and fire, her willingness to slide down the bannister of the grand staircase and run down the palace hallways chasing a soccer ball because the desert heat discouraged outdoor play. He loved the early teen years when she had been awkward and chunky and insecure. He loved the way she blew them all away in math and science and could write poems and love stories and read historical fiction while acting out the voices and lifting her chin like a graceful lady at court on an English countryside.
And then she grew up and became a lady.
And then a princess.
The jeweled crown that rested on Savannah’s ebony hair sparkled in the mirror. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. She was elegance personified. Sheer white lace and beading danced across her bosom, subtly concealing her graceful neck and full figure.
This new and exciting chapter beginning for the two of them was better than any romance novel ever written. The love story playing out in his mind would make their great-grandmother blush. He could never read this story out loud. And yet tonight they could act out the scenes in vivid detail. There was no need for imagination. But there was the need to get her brother out of the room.
“Could the two of you hurry this process along?” Eli asked. “I’d really like to remove that white dress along with her crown, and I know you don’t want to be here for that.”
“I’m restraining myself from holding a knife to your throat for even suggesting such a violation of my sister,” Kadin said in jest. “But seeing as how you have a marriage contract and the blessing of the monarch legally allowing that, I’ll let the comment slide.”
“I’m also legally allowed to order you from my suite,” Eli teased right back. “Now get this crown off my head so I can kick you out of here and make love to my wife.”
Kadin made a gagging noise and closed his eyes with a shudder. Turning to his sister he offered instructions. “The removal of the crown should be performed with reverence. Stand behind your prince and meet his gaze in the mirror.”
All three of them erased the lighthearted banter from their countenance as Savannah stood behind Eli and they almost seemed to breathe as one for just a moment.
“The velvet and mahogany box should already be resting on the dressing table, and open, before you begin the ceremony,” Kadin said, nodding toward the table. “We’ve already prepared that. Now, with both hands, clasp the sides of his crown and lift the band in one sure movement and carry it over to rest in the box.”
Barely breaking eye contact in the mirror, Savannah did as she’d been instructed, and laid the symbolic adornment within the box and slowly closed the lid. Nothing in his life had ever felt more provocative. He’d had his crown placed and removed dozens of times since his coronation years ago, but this was a new experience.
“Now His Highness will remove your crown, princess,” Kadin said, no longer teasing his sister but addressing royalty. And not just any royalty; the wife of his prince. Until Kadin married, his sister was now the most important woman in his life.
Eli rose from the settee and Savannah took his place. Standing behind her and gazing into the mirror, Eli wanted to lower his face and kiss her. He restrained his desire for a moment more.
Kadin didn’t need to use words to offer Eli instructions; he merely needed to wait.
Eli lifted the crown from Savannah’s head and carefully placed the band of gold in the velvet box. Nesting the box on top of his, he placed them both in the leather bag where they would stay until needed again.
In another symbolic gesture, Eli lifted the leather bag from the dressing table and handed the bag to Kadin, who stepped over to the closet and tucked the bag just inside the door. Without another word, Kadin bowed to his prince and princess and quietly left the room.
“Congratulations, Your Highness.” Mark spoke softly, coming up behind Eli where he stood at the base of the grand staircase, waiting for other family members to join him. Although not taking time to plan a formal wedding, they had spread the word throughout the palace that Prince Elmer and Princess Savannah would be signing marriage contracts that evening in the grand foyer. Many people were already milling about, standing in little groups talking amongst themselves.
“Your Highness?” Eli startled to see Mark and Alexander in full formal robes, similar to his own, having changed out of their black mourning attire into something more festive, more fitting for a wedding celebration. “I thought you had already left to return to America.”
“When I heard you were planning to marry your princess this evening, I delayed my departure. I couldn’t miss the chance to see my cousin voluntarily committing to a life of servitude.”
“Very funny.” Eli chuckled and accepted a hug from Mark. How quickly the two had become friends. “If a life of servitude means I get to sleep in the arms of my lovely Savannah, tie me in chains and shackle me to the bed.”
“I hear you. Waiting for Hazel to be legally allowed to become my wife is torture.”
“What is holding you back?” Eli creased his brow.
“She’s only seventeen”—Mark glanced at his watch in gest— “for another two months.”
“Shoot, that wouldn’t stop anyone here in the kingdom. At seventeen she would have brought forth your first son by now.”
“Well, she’s an American and perhaps a year from now you and I both will be celebrating our first sons.”
“I sincerely hope so, my cousin.”
A movement caught their attention at the head of the grand staircase and Captain Robert Dumont stepped into view in full uniform, wearing his usual stoic expression. On his arm was an elegant woman Eli hardly recognized.
Her raven curls had been tamed into cascades of waves, draping across her shoulder like a cape, the top of her head uncovered by a veil and ready for the crown that would be placed there in a few short moments. Her dark hair paired with her flawless copper skin and hauntingly mesmerizing eyes contrasted with the white gown that rivaled any Saudi princess he’d ever seen. She must have commissioned the dress months or years ago to have something so elaborate available in less than two days’ notice.
A tiny smile played on her lips when she noticed him standing at the base of the staircase and Eli straightened to stand erect. Chills ran down his spine. The grand staircase curved around an open atrium, pulling light from the three-story cathedral ceiling, the color a soft pink from the setting sun.
The captain stepped down first and reached up to offer his hand to his daughter, always remaining one step below her as if to prevent her from falling should one of her feet slip on the marble staircase. When they reached the bottom step, Robert lifted Savannah’s hand and placed it symbolically into Eli’s. They met one another’s eyes, man to man and Eli promised without an exchange of words that he would care for and serve Robert’s daughter. He nodded once and took a step back, leaving Savannah in Eli’s protective embrace.
With very little pageantry, but an abundance of solemnity, King Sayid recited the oaths Eli and Savannah were committing to one another by signing the marriage contract. They agreed verbally and then were invited to come forward and sign those sacred documents.
The first signature read Savannah Shaia Dumont Sayid. After the coronation, and for the remainder of her life, her signature would include her title and remove her surname. Eli stepped forward and with confident strokes wrote Prince Elmer Sayid of Mada’in Saleh. Below their signatures, were their two witnesses, Captain Robert Dumont, and Prince Omar Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.
The final signature, and the one with the official power to complete the contract was King Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.
“Princess, are you prepared to accept the responsibilities, rights, and duties of your title?” the king asked
“I am, Your Majesty.” Savannah nodded reverently.
King Sayid lifted Savannah’s commissioned crown from the velvet and Mahogany box that sat on the table beside the contract and floated the gold band with inlaid jewels toward her. She curtsied and bowed her head with vulnerability, offering herself to accept the crown.
The gold band seemed to meld into the crown of her head, symbolically becoming one. Eli understood the feeling of wearing a crown, almost as if a weighted blanket were draped across his shoulders and the world was complete when that gold band was fitted to his head.
Savannah rose from the curtsy and gazed up into the eyes of her king. Tears spilled down her cheeks. King Sayid turned her gently toward Eli and his breath caught. No princess had ever been more elegant or regal.
Eli had a strange flash forward moment envisioning Savannah wearing his great-grandmother’s crown. A queen. A higher calling. Almost as quickly as the vision materialized, it vanished, and his princess once again stood in place of his queen.
The shock nearly caused Eli to stumble. He was not Crown. He would never be king, which meant Savannah would never be queen. There had to have been a manifestation of an alternate reality brought on by his great-grandmother’s strange prediction.
With the wedding and coronation complete, Eli was invited to kiss the lovely woman before him, and he dutifully complied. He was glad they had not prepared a reception because he had no desire to be surrounded by friends and family a moment longer.
He remembered the words of the limousine driver suggesting the backseat of his limo on the way home from the airport was neither the time nor place for that particular activity. Now was the time, and he could hardly wait to carry his bride up that grand staircase.
“My love, we must tread softly. The queen is mourning her son.” Eli paused outside Queen Salaina’s suite and lifted Savannah’s hands in his. “Even if she is not able to provide us with that elegant piece of jewelry, I don’t want to wait.”
“I don’t want to wait either,” she said. “I don’t need a ring; I just want to be with you.”
“You have to make me a promise,” Eli said.
“Promise me you’ll return to college after your spring break and finish your degree, no matter how much I beg you to stay.” Eli chuckled.
Savannah lowered her gaze and blushed a soft pink. “I promise.”
“Serving as a princess is not easy.”
“Will I sleep beside you every night?”
“If sleep is what you desire,” Eli teased.
“There are lots of things I desire.” Savannah’s voice lowered.
“I hope by this evening I’ll legally be allowed to fulfill your every desire.” Eli leaned closer and whispered near her ear.
Before Eli could pull away from Savannah, the queen’s door opened, and a young woman stood with her arms folded.
“Your queen would like to inquire why you’re standing outside her door rather than coming inside.”
“We have no reasonable excuse,” Eli said, extracting himself from Savannah’s arms. “Have we permission to enter?”
“Of course, Your Highness.” The woman stepped aside and held open the door.
Elegant as ever, Queen Salaina perched on a perfectly sized sofa strategically placed in the sitting room to greet anyone wishing an audience. Her flowing black dress had been draped across her lap as if her lady had smoothed it that way prior to her opening the door. The queen was staged in much the same way as the room. There was no outward indication of the sobbing she’d displayed earlier in the day.
“Your Grace, may we have a moment of your time?” Eli bowed respectfully to his great-grandmother.
“I’ve been expecting you, my dear.” Salaina raised her hand to invite them forward.
Eli leaned down to kiss her hand and Savanna curtsied.
“Please have a seat.” The queen gestured toward the low sofa to her right. “Might I be the first to offer you congratulations on your intent to be married.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Eli nodded.
“I already know why you have come,” she said.
“I have known the two of you all your lives. You have come to play in my suite many times over the years.”
“You do keep a nice collection of toys and books and puzzles up here.” Eli glanced to the far corner where a little play area was provided for when her grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to see her. He and Kadin and Savannah loved to come play under the loving attention of the queen.
“How else do I expect to draw young people into my life?” She chuckled.
“Indeed.” Eli laughed softly.
“Let me speak to Savannah a moment.” Salaina turned her attention to the beautiful woman holding Eli’s hand.
“Would you like me to leave the room, Your Grace?” Eli leaned forward, prepared to rise if she requested.
“No, my dear, you need to hear this as well.”
Eli settled into his seat again, suddenly anxious.
“Princess Savannah, you will serve as a princess for longer than I will be alive on this earth.” Salaina’s gaze penetrated across the small space between her chaise and the sofa where Eli and Savannah sat. Eli loved the way the queen had already paired his bride’s title with her name. “Shortly after my death you will be asked to serve a much higher calling.”
A chill ran down Eli’s spine. What did she mean by that? He felt Savannah’s shoulder rest against his as if she were leaning closer for safety.
“I have faith that you are prepared for that challenge, or at least you will be by then. Learn all you can. Your education will be the driving force in your ability to succeed.”
Savannah nodded and gulped but didn’t respond with words.
“Now, Your Highness.” Salaina turned her attention back to Eli. “You also will be required to serve in ways you never dreamed necessary. I have already requested that the king appoint you as ambassador to the United Nations.”
“You have?” Eli sat back against the sofa cushions as if someone had pushed him.
“But I must ask a favor.” She leaned forward with a conspiratorial note of humor. “Allow His Majesty to pretend the idea was his.”
Eli chuckled and nodded. The queen winked at Savannah.
“Always let the men think your ideas were theirs. They don’t have much purpose in this life, and it makes them feel better about their inadequacies.”
Savannah giggled and glanced up at Eli. He leaned toward her and kissed her lightly on her lips. He couldn’t help himself.
“Now, for the most important item of business.” The queen glanced over at her lady who was still hovering off to the side of the room. “Could you bring me the boxes I asked you to retrieve?”
“Of course, Your Grace.” The young lady left the room briefly and returned with two velvet boxes, one nested upon the other. Eli knew exactly what items were inside.
“Princess, when you were too old to play with the toys in the corner, you continued to come visit me. I welcomed your attention and humored you with tea parties and dressing up in my dresses and makeup and jewelry. And when my eyes grew tired, you read me stories.”
“You always had the newest releases long before the palace library.” Savannah shrugged as if that explained her reason to visit.
“Every little drawer had to be opened. Every pair of shoes tried on. Every scarf, every necklace, every ring.” Salaina lifted the smaller of the two velvet boxes. “There was always one particular ring that you had to try on each time you played dress-up.”
“The chocolate diamond,” Savannah and the queen said at the same time.
Eli’s heart pounded. The queen already knew which ring Savannah wanted before he even had to ask. He leaned forward in awe as his great-grandmother ceremoniously opened the little velvet box to reveal the hundred-year-old chocolate pear-shaped diamond with the thick band that Savannah had requested.
Instead of handing the box directly to Savannah, the queen handed the box to Eli. “I trust you know what to do with this?”
Eli took the box with shaking hands and turned to Savannah, who had streams of tears down her cheeks. This was a moment he’d dreamed about for years and couldn’t believe it was finally here.
Was he really going to propose to Savannah in front of his great-grandmother? Why not? She had loved them both all their lives, watched them grow up, and had gifted them the perfect diamond ring. He couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to ask the most important question of his life.
Lowering himself to one knee beside the sofa, he rested the ring box on Savannah’s knee and gazed up into the most beautiful mysteriously colorful eyes he’d ever seen. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he spoke from his heart.
“My first love. My only love. I promise to cherish you forever and be yours forever. Will you marry me? and be mine forever?”
“Yes, forever and ever, yes!” Savannah almost bounced with excitement.
Eli carefully removed the priceless diamond ring and set the velvet box aside. He slipped the ring onto Savannah’s finger just as the door to the queen’s suite burst open.
“Did I miss it?” King Sayid leaned over and rested his hands on his knees. “Oh, thank goodness. I’m not too late. I hurried as soon as Deborah sent me that text.”
“Your Majesty.” Eli hurried to his feet and bowed to his great-grandfather.
“You know I wouldn’t do this without you, darling,” Queen Salaina said. “I would have found a way to stall them.”
“S—stall us?” Eli glanced down at the ring he’d just placed on Savannah’s hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you wanted me to wait.”
“Oh phooey, that’s merely a ring.” The king waved his hand dismissively. Regaining his composure, Sayid stood to his full height and strode across the room to take his place beside his wife. In a rare show of affection, he leaned closer and kissed her with a love and devotion Eli hadn’t realized they shared.
Eli had a hard time grasping how a man could love his wife yet allow another woman to steal him from her bed. Still, it wasn’t his place to judge. The king had chosen to marry the Princess of Tayma for reasons Eli may never understand.
“Would you like to do the honors, Your Majesty?” Salaina handed the larger velvet box to the king and folded her hands in her lap.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Sayid turned to Eli and Savannah. He took a calming breath and spoke directly to Savannah. “Princess, this has belonged to you for many years.”
“This was the one item of jewelry I never let you try on.” Salaina smiled knowingly.
King Sayid opened the velvet box to reveal an elegant and simple band of gold inlaid with dozens of jewels and intricate carvings. A crown befitting a princess.
Savannah gasped and held her hand to her chest. She turned to Eli with wonderment. “That’s for me?”
“What’s a coronation without a crown?” Eli asked softly.
“All I need is you,” Savannah whispered.
“Sorry, we’re a package deal. If you choose to marry me, you are choosing to become a princess. If you’re having second thoughts…”
“Shut up, Eli, I’ve known all my life that I was destined to be your princess.” She chuckled and leaned forward to kiss him. Eli had to force himself to break away. A few more hours to wait.
“Well, do you have a dress, my dear? Or would you like to raid my closet for that as well?” They all chuckled at the queen’s jest.
“Yes, grandmother, I have a dress.” Savannah rose from the sofa and crossed the distance to reach for a hug from Salaina. Afterward, she threw her arms around the king as well. “Thank you both, so much.”
“Hey, I have ulterior motives,” the king said, holding Savannah at arm’s length. “I expect great-great-grandbabies out of this union.”
Eli coughed lightly and stood. “On that note, I think it’s time to prepare ourselves for our wedding.” He reached for Savannah’s hand and helped her to her feet, pulling her into his arms.
“This evening we dine in honor of your new life together,” Sayid said. “Thank you for helping lighten this day that started so dark. Here’s to new beginnings.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Eli leaned down to hug his great-grandparents, forgetting all conventions. In that moment, they were not the king and queen. They were family.
Was Mark brave or an idiot? Eli wasn’t sure, but the king had insisted. He asked Prince Marcos to stand to his right as he led the funeral procession from the palace to the royal family’s mausoleum near the edge of the city center. Mark held his head high with confidence and Eli fought the urge to sneer.
With one symbolic move, King Sayid had announced to the world his chosen successor.
Eli’s father, Prince Omar walked to the King’s left, the meaning of which was not lost on anyone. His mother, Princess Nijah stood to Omar’s left with Queen Salaina to his right, grasping Omar’s right arm. She seemed to be barely holding herself together. Eli wished he could comfort his great-grandmother, but the public show of affection would have been frowned-upon and shown the queen as weak.
Prince Jared and his wife walked to the right and behind Prince Omar, and Eli to his left, Kadin at his shoulder. At that moment, Eli wished he had taken the time to marry Savannah the day before because she would have been at his side as they made their way to the tomb.
The funeral procession was formal and attended by most people in the kingdom, who seemed there out of curiosity or reveling in the pageantry rather than grief for a prince none of them had seen in forty years. Many of the people in the kingdom had never met Prince Marcos and his American grandson was just a novelty.
The internment was solemn and formal. The only noise was Queen Salaina crying in the arms of her grandson, Prince Omar, who also was sobbing. Eli was at a loss how to comfort his father. The man had always been cold and stern, showing little emotion and even less affection. His uncle must have meant more to him than he ever allowed the world to see.
The pallbearers slid the ornate casket in which Prince Marcos would forever rest deep into a tomb that had been carved from rock. The heavy stone placed in front of the tomb already bore his name and the stone to his left read the name of his brother, Eli’s late grandfather, Prince Jared Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.
Eli had never met his grandfather, Jared, but believed in his heart that he had been an upstanding crown prince and would have made a great king.
If King Sayid were to pass away, the throne would be highly contested. The king’s wishes had been made clear. But would the kingdom honor his selection? Eli doubted that would be the case. He couldn’t envision Jared stepping down, or the Princess of Tayma allowing him to step down. Jared would be a terrible king. A puppet with a crown. Eli shuddered at the prospect.
He silently willed King Sayid to stay alive as long as he possibly could.
“Okay, after I pull your father away, spend some time with your mom. I really don’t want the captain to see you before I have a chance to talk with him.”
“Don’t take too long.” Savannah wrapped her arms around Eli’s waist. “I don’t want to be away from you.”
“If all goes well, hopefully this is the last night we have to sleep apart.” Eli gazed down brushing her hair away from her face and was tempted to press his lips to hers again. He forced himself some restraint, knowing he wouldn’t want to stop. He needed to see her father with a clear head and without swollen lips. The thought brought out a tiny smile. “Now go hide around the corner while I retrieve your father.”
“Okay, okay.” She lifted onto her toes to plant one tiny kiss on his mouth and hurried into the next hallway.
Eli took a deep, steadying breath and stepped forward, ready to get this over with. He reached up and wrapped his knuckles on the thick, ornately carved wooden door.
Captain Robert Dumont, of the king’s royal guard, opened the door to his apartment with his usual stoic, confident expression. One of the few people in the kingdom not required to greet the royal family with a nod or bow, the captain held his chin aloft. “Your Highness, welcome.”
Robert stepped aside, holding the door open. Few doors in the palace were closed to the royal family and turning away a prince would never occur to even the captain of the guard.
But Eli didn’t enter the elegant apartment reserved for the captain and his family.
“Captain, if you would, I’d like to have a word with you alone,” Eli said with reverence and respect, in no way demanding an audience. “Would you be willing to join me for a walk?”
Glancing into his apartment where his wife, Virginia, stood with a soft smile, Robert answered with a curt nod. “Of course.” He pulled the door closed behind him and turned down the hall in the direction where Savannah was hiding.
“This way, please.” Eli’s words were a little too demanding, and he softened his tone. “If that’s okay with you.”
“Your Highness, you are quite literally allowed to demand me to do whatever you want.” Robert didn’t crack a smile but turned to follow Eli’s direction.
“In that case, I demand you to think of me as a man for a few moments and forget I’m a prince.”
Robert finally chuckled and relaxed. “Whatever you say, Your… uh… Elmer.”
“Captain Dumont, I’ll get right to the point. I’d like to marry your daughter.”
“Have you any other daughters of whom I’m not aware?”
Brushing aside Eli’s snarky comment, Robert asked, “When?”
“Tomorrow?” Robert stopped short.
“Yes, sir.” Eli turned to meet the captain where he had stopped.
“I believe we have a funeral to attend tomorrow,” Robert said.
“Which is why we’re waiting.”
“Waiting?” Robert raised his eyebrows.
“Until after the funeral, yes.”
“Aside from my shock at this declaration, I’m curious how you’re planning to handle the logistics of her being in Jerusalem at the university and you being here in the kingdom.”
“I flew her home this morning,” Eli said.
“My daughter is here?” Robert turned to face Eli then looked up and down the hall. “Where?”
“Please don’t ask me that,” Eli requested. “I don’t wish to lie, but I would really like a moment with just you before you spend the remainder of the evening with your daughter and your wife.”
Robert cocked his head to the side. “Why?”
“I know it’s an old-fashioned notion, but I’m asking for your permission and blessing.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but shouldn’t the permission be granted by the king? As much as you’d like me to think of you as a man and not as a prince, the reality is, you are a prince. There are protocols that must be followed. Have they not already chosen a princess from some far-off land to be your wife?”
“The king has already given us his blessing,” Eli said. “We asked him an hour ago. But as you said, the reality a me being a prince means my wedding will include a coronation and my wife will be named a princess. I want to know you are okay with Savannah being named as my princess.”
“Why would I have a problem with that, son?” In a rare show of endearment, Robert placed his hands upon Eli’s shoulders and met his gaze.
“There are many responsibilities that accompany the title, and not all of them are pleasant.”
“How does she feel about the prospect of marrying you?”
“She asked if we could have the king perform the ceremony this afternoon if possible.” Eli gulped, not wanting to admit to Savannah’s father the physical reasons why they’d like to be married immediately.
Robert suddenly leaned his head back and laughed heartily. Dropping his arms, he met Eli’s gaze again and lifted his eyebrows with a knowing expression. “I see you continue your insistence of maintaining purity until marriage.”
“Why is that such a foreign concept to people?” Eli asked.
“The notion doesn’t exactly run in your family.” Robert chuckled then must have realized the way he had just spoken ill of the royals to whom he’d sworn his loyalty and protection. He straitened his back and raised his chin. “I mean… uh…”
“Don’t worry about saying what the rest of us are thinking but aren’t willing to admit out loud, at least not in my presence. You might want to keep your opinions to yourself in front of others.”
“You did ask me to treat you like a man and not a prince.” Robert seemed to be holding his breath waiting for reprimand.
“I did indeed,” Eli said, then continued. “I’d like you to spend some time with Savannah this evening and decide for yourself if she’s in love with me and if you’re okay with her marrying me. Then, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to have your blessing.”
“I don’t need to spend time with her to know your character, Your Highness. I’ve known you since before you were born. My son is your advisor. My daughter has been your playmate all her life. But most importantly, I know that you love her unconditionally and have her best interests in your heart.”
“I do, captain.” Eli gulped and nodded.
“Then you have my blessing, Your Highness,” Robert said with reverence.
“Thank you, sir.” In an unprecedented move, Eli threw his arms around Robert and hugged him like he would a father, if his own father wasn’t a stuffy and cynical man.
Robert hesitated and then returned the hug.
Eli suddenly pulled away from his future father-in-law with a renewed excitement. “I’m going now to have the king draw up the proper paperwork, and ensure that Savannah’s crown is commissioned, and to prepare my suite for her to move in with me, and I already know which ring she has picked out, and she’s waiting for you in your apartment. Thank you, captain! I’ll see you at the funeral tomorrow. You won’t regret this, I promise.”
Without waiting for Robert to answer, Eli hurried down the hall toward his great-grandfather’s office. The proper contracts, the queen’s blessing, and the gift from her collection of royal jewels, were his last hurtles. That, and about twenty-four hours of tortuous waiting.
As was the king’s habit, he swept open the door, entering Eli’s office unannounced.
Eli jumped to attention, almost dropping Savannah off his lap. He caught her before she toppled over and steadied both her and himself while trying to mask a sheepish expression.
“Your Majesty, we uh, I mean, we weren’t doing anything inappropriate. I realize how this must look.”
“Your Highness, you are an adult,” Sayid said with a wave of his hand. “What you do with the captain’s daughter is none of my concern. Welcome home from university, young Savannah.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Savannah bowed her head respectfully and kept her eyes averted.
“She is not just the captain’s daughter,” Eli insisted, panic crushing his chest that the king would think such a thing. “I would never take liberties with your captain’s daughter.”
“I would hope you wouldn’t take liberties with any girl, Your Highness,” Savannah hissed under her breath.
“You know I wouldn’t,” Eli grumbled just as low.
“Six months is a long time to wait while I was gone.”
“I’ve waited for you for twenty-three years,” Eli said. “I think I can handle waiting a few more months.”
King Sayid interrupted their quarrel, turning to Mark and Alexander with a wide smile. “Savannah’s father is captain of my royal guard. The finest man I have in my employ.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Savannah responded. “He enjoys working for you.”
“Savannah, may I introduce you to my cousin, Prince Marcos, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.” Eli placed his hand on Savannah’s lower back, guiding her forward. “Savannah and I have been friends since we were young children, playing together in the nursery. Rather than my mother care for me herself, she took me to play with the palace staff’s children. Thankfully.” Eli met her gaze with longing.
“These two have been playing house since they were children, and someday soon we’ll watch them raise their own children,” Sayid said.
“You wouldn’t—” Eli gulped— “Be averse to me choosing a wife who is not of royal blood?”
“You are not the crown prince,” the king said dismissively. “Your bloodline is of little consequence.”
Little consequence? Eli tried to hold his composure at the way the king brushed him aside but found it hard not to be offended.
First, they’d barged into his office while he was having a private moment with his girlfriend and then his great-grandfather had insulted Eli and discounted his importance in the family.
Notwithstanding the frustration, the king had inadvertently offered his blessing on their union. Eli decided to request his great-grandfather draft contracts that very day.
One item of business first; he had to obtain the blessing of the captain of the guard. He sighed and returned his attention to the conversations around him. There would be time to meet with Savannah’s father later.
“Tell me more about these cool linen robes you all seem to wear around here.” Mark asked, stepping closer and lifting the unique fabric between his fingers. “Where can I get some of these?”
“We could take you into the city center and check out some of the vendors there, if you’d like,” Eli said, appreciating the distraction from that uncomfortable conversation with their great-grandfather. “That, or you could just raid my closet.”
“I’d like to buy some that we could take back with us,” Mark said, then glanced at Alexander. “We’d be styling on campus at our university.”
“Heck no! I’m not wearing one of those at college,” Alexander said, shaking his head adamantly. Then he seemed to realize the casual way he was discussing clothing choices and straightened to his full height, lifting his chin. “I mean, unless you require that of me, Your Highness.”
“Well,” King Sayid said with a chuckle. “I’m going to rest awhile before the noon meal. I’ll leave you young people to plan an afternoon shopping trip.”
“We’ll see you at lunch, Your Majesty.” Mark said.
Eli and Mark both bowed with respect to their elder, but Alexander and Savannah seemed to know instinctively that they were not required to bow when the king left the room, like the princes.
After the king left Eli’s office, Alexander turned toward the other three college-age kids. “I am so sorry. I don’t know what got into me. I’m still not used to playing this role.”
“You’re fine, Alex, relax.” Mark laid a hand on his shoulder.
Eli strode over and closed the door to his office. “There, now you can be as casual as you want. It’s just us young people, as grandfather called us.”
“Where do you go to school, Your Highness?” Savannah returned to the sofa where she’d been sitting with Eli and lounged casually, slipping her feet from her sandals and pulling her legs up onto the sofa.
“North Carolina State University,” Mark said. He and Alexander sat beside one another, and Eli sat next to Savannah, tucking her feet up under his legs as if needing to keep them warm. “You?”
“Ariel University, Department of Molecular Biology, in Jerusalem,” Savannah said flippantly as if she knew that was impressive.
“Molecular biology? Dang,” Mark said. “You must be super smart.”
“She is,” Eli said, pulling her hand to his lips for a kiss. He met her gaze and wished these intrusive visitors would leave so he could have her alone again. She winked and then pulled her gaze away
“So, um, Alex, are you related to the Cohen family who used to own a whole bunch of businesses in Jerusalem?” Savannah asked. “The library where I go to college was named by their foundation because they provided the funding.”
“Yeah, Nicholas Cohen is my grandfather,” Alexander said, sitting up a little straighter.
“And what are you studying in college?” Savannah asked.
“I’m learning how to become the advisor to a cocky prince who thinks the world revolves around him,” Alexander said with a straight face. Mark punched him in the arm. “Kidding! Kidding. Geesh. I’m pre-law but considering public administration.”
“Are you in college, Eli?” Mark cringed and Eli knew exactly why. Here Eli had just been bragging about their ability to change cadence when others were in the room and not two hours later Mark had used the prince’s nickname rather than addressing his title.
“No, I’m not… Mark.” Eli allowed sarcasm to drip from his snarky answer. “You heard the king. My bloodline is of little consequence.”
“Well, aside from not believing that for a second—” Mark coughed playfully— “If marrying outside of royal blood means you get to marry a smart and beautiful woman such as the one sitting at your side, I’d be thankful you aren’t required to marry a snobby princess at the ripe old age of sixteen.” Eli couldn’t have agreed more.
“Speaking of snobby princesses,” Eli said. “How are you doing with avoiding my lovely niece?”
“I have yet to see her since I handed her off to her father last night and fled to my suite with a migraine.”
“She’ll find you eventually,” Eli said. “This palace isn’t as big as it looks. I’m sure she knows where your suite is located. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s waiting in your room right now, lounging on your king-sized bed and hoping you’ll make her your queen.”
Alexander pulled a key from his pocket and held it up on a keyring. “I’m one step ahead of you.”
“Trust me,” Mark said. “She won’t sink her claws into me no matter how hard she tries.”
Good luck with that, Eli thought. The princess of Nimrah wouldn’t be deterred by a key and a declaration. Eli felt bad for encouraging Mark into this situation. Hopefully the kid would figure out a way to drag himself out.
Eli didn’t want to wait for Savannah to fly commercial, so he’d sent the Sayid family’s jet to Jerusalem to retrieve her. Six months at her university had been too long to be apart. She was right. They needed to get married. Immediately. Forget an engagement. He wanted the coronation. And the honeymoon. Today preferably.
Savannah appeared in the doorway of the plane, her flawless copper skin and flowing ebony hair sent his blood racing. She slipped a pair of sunglasses onto her face, shielding her eyes from the brutal desert sun. Eli could tell the minute she saw him because she bounded down the stairs and raced across the tarmac throwing herself into his arms. He fell back against the side of the limo, and their lips connected.
Forget asking his grandma for the pretty ring in her jewelry closet. He almost got down on his knee right there on the hot pavement and begged for her hand. But he didn’t want to pull his hungry body away from hers for that long.
After a minute or two of kissing—he completely lost track—she pulled away just long enough to gasp, “Air conditioning.”
Eli pulled open the door to the limo, barely interrupting their kiss long enough to climb up into the Hummer. She scooted over on the seat, tossing her sunglasses aside, and pulled him down on top of her.
“Um, Your Highness?” Their driver cleared his throat. Eli looked up at their driver with a sheepish but unrepentant connection in the rearview mirror. “Need I remind you that in this particular style of limousine I will be able to see and hear everything you do. Not that I’ll judge your behavior, but this may not be the best time or place for that… um… activity.”
“Ugh,” Eli moaned and lowered his head to Savanna’s shoulder, burying his face in her hair, still almost completely on top of her, having not even closed the side door yet. “Probably for the best anyway,” he mumbled low enough only she would be able to hear.
“Later,” Savannah whispered back.
“I need to marry you first.”
“Ugh, you’re still insisting on that?” Savannah rested her head against the seat and stared up at the ceiling, lifting her hands into her raven curls and pulling gently.
“Yes ma’am.” Eli sat up and pulled the door closed, extricating himself from her legs wrapped around his waist. When did that happen? “I will not defile you. Or myself.”
“Fine, call up the king and tell him to draft a marriage contract and we can be married an hour from now.”
Eli pulled her to a seated position and laughed, knowing she was only half-joking. “He’s entertaining my cousin today. Let’s wait until after the funeral tomorrow and Mark heads back to America.”
“You call him Mark?” Savannah’s jaw dropped. “Does he call you Eli?”
“Only in private,” Eli said. “We’re quite good at shifting cadence when in the company of others.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.”
“You won’t have to wait long. The king has instructed me to be available later this morning when he brings Prince Marcos around to informally meet the princes away from the pageantry of the throne room and banquet hall and royal family and court.”
“What’s he like?” Savannah sounded excited. Eli wondered if he should worry about her flirting with him like every other woman at the reception last night. Mark had made it clear he had a girlfriend back in America. Good. Maybe that would keep him there for now.
“I don’t know. Calculating. Smart. Young. You’ll have to judge him for yourself and tell me what you think.”
“Was he seriously bold enough to wear the crown last night?” Savannah’s avoidance of calling the crown his crown wasn’t lost on Eli.
But who should wear the crown? Eli’s father, Omar? His brother, Jared? He shuddered at the thought. Eli was reminded of his conversation before dinner the night before; how he had all but pledged his allegiance to Mark. The kid was world-travelled, knowledgeable about international affairs, had connections in Mexico and the United States, and most importantly, Mark loved Madain Saleh. How? Why? Eli wasn’t sure. The land called to Mark just like it called to Eli. He’d make a better king than anyone in the entire royal family.
“Hey, deep thinker?” Savannah waved her hand in front of Eli’s face. “What complicated mystery of the world are you contemplating?”
“The future of our monarchy,” Eli said softly, then turned to her and met her gaze. He was keenly aware of what their driver had said a few moments prior. They had an audience. Eli tried to communicate with his eyes that they’d continue this conversation later. “Yes, he wore the crown. You’ll just have to meet him and tell me your opinions afterward.”
“Okay,” Savannah said, reaching for his hand. “Can we make out some more now?”
“You won’t get me in trouble again?” He raised his eyebrows.
“I make no promises,” she whispered.
He took his chances and leaned forward, matching her hunger with controlled passion. A few more days. They could wait that long. Hopefully.
“How did I do?” Mark asked Eli in a hushed tone.
Eli felt he could speak frankly to his cousin as they stood near one corner of the throne room, waiting for the meal to commence. Alexander and Kadin hovered just far enough away to provide a screen of privacy. “Better than I could have predicted. Nimrah has already requested the seating arrangement be reorganized to have you at her side. Her right side, of course.”
“Of course,” Mark sneered. “I will be sure to offer her my undivided attention.”
“Don’t get caught in her web, my cousin,” Eli warned, knowing how persuasive Nimrah could be. She had more than one man within the palace walls wrapped around her finger, not that any of them would be suitable as a husband. For that, she needed a prince or dignitary. If given the opportunity she would sink her claws into Mark. “And do not go anywhere alone with her.”
“If she tries anything, I’ll make mention of my intended bride back in the States,” Mark said. “The daughter of a powerful U.S. senator.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise either.” Eli pursed his lips in thought. “At least not until the last day you’re here. Flirt with her tonight, then stay regrettably busy meeting with the king and other princes over the next few days.” Eli had already been told that he was expected to be available in his office by late morning because the king planned to personally take Mark on a tour of the palace.
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark said. “I look forward to that anyway. Any advice about my audience with the king?”
“Do not bring up your suspicions about the likely affair between his second wife and his grandson’s advisor,” Eli said.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Mark said. “And what should I know about your older brother?”
“Jared is next in line behind my father, although Nimrah calls the shots in that family.”
“Seems a lot of power bestowed upon a fifteen-year-old girl,” Mark said, creasing his brow.
“There has never been a Crown Princess in the history of our kingdom, and the Princess of Nimrah seems to think that should be remedied.” Eli allowed his gaze to drift in the general direction of where Nimrah was entertaining a small circle of other teenage girls. They frequently giggled and turned to look at Eli and Mark, probably hoping to catch the attention of the mysterious twenty-year-old prince from America.
“Have you considered the claim my grandfather made that he was the rightful Crown since his older brother died?” Mark asked.
So, the kid was finally broaching the subject. Eli turned back toward Mark, took a sip from his glass of wine, and glanced briefly at the crown on Mark’s head. “By de facto bestowing that right to yourself, no doubt?”
“Naturally,” Mark said.
“Is that your intention? To challenge the throne?”
“What are your thoughts on the subject, Your Highness?” Mark asked.
“The claim has merit—” Eli hesitated. “You would have an uphill battle, that’s for sure.”
“I am wearing the crown,” Mark stated, raising his brows.
“I’m aware of that,” Eli said through clenched teeth. “Boldly, I might add.”
“Thank you.” Mark lifted his chin.
“I’m not sure I intended that as a compliment,” Eli said. Mark’s grandfather had taken his older brother’s official crown, the one bestowed upon the crown prince at his coronation. Mark’s brazen display of the adornment at this reception was enough to cause contention and division among the royal family. “I’m undecided.”
“I will tell you this,” Eli said, looking Mark in the eye, man to man, cousin to cousin, prince to prince. “I would stand at your side should you make that choice.”
“I would welcome your support,” Mark said with sincerity, all haughtiness gone from his countenance.
“You would be a far better ruler than my brother, and more honest.” Eli sighed and glanced around the throne room as if he were a stranger evaluating those in attendance at the reception. “I fear for the future of our country if the Princess of Nimrah gains any more power than she already possesses.”
“Let’s discuss this again in a few days after I’ve taken full assessment of the situation,” Mark suggested.
“I look forward to that report,” Eli said, nodding thoughtfully.
Just then the young caller announced that dinner was ready to be served.
“Your princess awaits,” Eli said with a chuckle, not envying Mark’s predicament.
“Wish me luck,” Mark grumbled.
Watching from across the table as Mark charmed the princess was comical. Eli was embarrassed how well the attention was working. He nodded at his cousin once acknowledging his perfect acting skills.
Dinner was followed by entertainment back in the throne room which had been transformed into a dance hall with colorful lighting, Zaffa drummers, Egyptian dancers, and a Middle Eastern Dabke dance number. The palace staff had gone to great lengths to welcome the visitors from America.
Eli was glad this wasn’t a regular occurrence because he was annoyed at the spectacle. After he participated in the tribute dance honoring their great-grandmother and queen, he feigned a yawn and retired for the night.
As he strode down the hall toward his suite, his phone lit up with an incoming text. Aced my midterms, packed and ready to board the plane. See you in the morning.
Travel safely, my love. Eli hit send and knew he’d lay awake in anticipation of holding Savannah in his arms the following day.
The red carpet stretched from the entrance of the throne room to the far wall, the center of which included a raised platform of marble where three thrones sat. Several lower levels of raised platforms sat to the right of the king, each with thrones, all of which were occupied by various members of the royal family.
As Eli took his place on the lowest of the platforms, he scanned the room.
Small groupings of dignitaries stood around; unaware they were being watched. The leaders of the government at all levels, the leaders of the military, all appointed officials of the monarchy, descendants of the queen’s sister and brothers, the king’s sister, aunts, uncles, and a myriad of cousins.
Formal dress was in the eye of the beholder when the people of Madain Saleh gathered for a reception. Some men were in business suits or military uniforms, others wore ornate robes made of colorful linens. Only a few men wore tuxedos; most opted for formal suits. Some women wore floor-length evening gowns and jewels while others were shrouded from head to toe. Most fell somewhere in between, and all of them were comfortable in their chosen attire. Eli appreciated the diversity of his kingdom.
A tiny hint of commotion caught Eli’s attention as his cousin stepped into view at the entrance of the throne room, Alexander at his right. Mark didn’t show any signs of nervousness, although the scene must be intimidating from his point of view. He had the serious disadvantage of everyone knowing who he was and why he was here.
The young man appointed to be caller at the entrance to the throne room spoke with clarity that resounded through the excellent acoustics, “Your Majesty and Your Grace, may I present His Royal Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Murmurs preceded them as they walked the length of the room and as Mark got closer to the royal family, his gaze quickly swept from the top platform down the line. When he met Eli’s gaze, he smirked.
Eli was glad to have given Mark the lowdown on what to expect. This whole evening could have been a disaster otherwise.
At the base of the marble steps leading up the platform, Mark lowered to one knee, as did Alexander.
“Your Majesty—” Mark bowed his head briefly— “And Your Grace. It is with regret that I bring you the news that your son, His Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid of Mada’in Saleh has passed away. I have brought him home that he might be returned to the soil from which he came.”
Eli raised his eyebrows at Mark’s use of the ancient pronunciation of their kingdom, which was rarely used other than the most formal declarations. The observance spoke volumes as to Mark’s commitment to their land.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid nodded regally and held out his hand.
Mark and Alexander stood and ascended the marble steps to approach the thrones and stood before the king. “Your Majesty, I am your great-grandson, Prince Marcos Sayid, son of Prince Benjamin Sayid, and grandson of the late Prince Marcos Sayid. May I present my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
King Sayid lifted a hand to introduce the women who sat on either side. “May I present, Her Grace, Queen Salaina of Madain Saleh, and my second wife, the Princess of Tayma.”
“Your Grace, I’m honored to finally meet you.” Mark bowed to his great-grandmother and pulled her hand to his lips in a kiss of respect. Alexander appropriately held back and didn’t step forward to greet the king or queen, merely bowed his head and maintained his stance behind Mark.
Mark stepped to the other side of the king’s throne and similarly greeted their great-grandfather’s second wife, forgoing the bow of respect he’d given the queen. Eli fought the urge to chuckle at the omission. “Princess, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Liar, Eli thought but held his peace.
“May I present my son,” the princess practically purred at Mark. “His Highness, Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” Her emphasis on the word crown was even stronger than that of her son’s advisor, Ahmed, who stood dutifully behind Omar’s throne, a defiant lift to his chin.
“Your Highness,” Mark said to Eli’s father with an added level of respect and admiration. “Your uncle, His Highness Prince Marcos, wished for me to convey to you the extreme amount of love he held for you throughout the remainder of his life, and the regret that he felt in never having the opportunity to see you again before he died.”
Eli fought the urge to glare at his grandmother, knowing she was the reason why his father never had a chance to say goodbye to his beloved uncle.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” father said with real sadness in his voice. “I remember him fondly as well. I regret not having him here as I grew up.” He seemed to pause and compose himself then lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders.
“May I introduce my sons, Prince Jared, and Prince Elmer.”
“Prince Elmer was of great assistance to me this afternoon when he escorted me from the airport.” Mark nodded to Eli’s father, then stepped down to reach out a hand to Jared. “Pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. You simply must introduce me to this lovely young lady at your side.”
“May I introduce my daughter, Her Highness, the Princess of Nimrah,” Jared said, as if he were a doting father who loved his little girl.
“A princess befitting such a strong name, I’m sure.” Mark took her hand and his eyes seemed to smolder with calculated attention. Perfect. He was playing his part well. Maybe Mark’s inevitable rejection would push Nimrah off her high horse if that were possible. Eli wanted to be around to see her stumble.
The forty-five-minute drive through the dusty mountainous caverns and open desert gave them an opportunity to discuss all who they would meet upon arriving at the palace.
“My father was seventeen when my older brother, Jared, was born,” Eli explained, wondering how much his cousin knew about the royal family.
“Seventeen?” Mark’s jaw dropped. Apparently not much.
“It is tradition, and expected, that the Crown Prince be married at sixteen,” Eli said, thankful once again that he hadn’t been born first. Now, at twenty-three years old, Eli was finally committing himself to the love of his life rather than being forced to marry a stranger back when he was a teenager.
“Man, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in Madain Saleh,” Mark grumbled.
Eli almost chuckled, wondering how this conversation would have been different if Mark had grown up in the kingdom. Would he have been recognized as Crown? Or would the title be as disputed at it was today?
“How old was your father when you were born?” Mark’s brow creased.
“I wasn’t born until he was twenty-six, which meant I became an uncle at the ripe old age of eight.” Eli fought the urge to sneer, even now remembering his discomfort at watching his older brother forced into adulthood at such a young age.
“Yeah, my brother had his daughter when he was seventeen,” Eli said. “She is by far the most spoiled little fifteen-year-old princess you’ll ever meet. Takes after our grandmother, the lovely and charming Princess of Tayma.” Sarcasm dripped from Eli’s words.
“I take it you don’t like your grandmother?” Mark’s rhetorical question was interrupted by Alexander.
“Forgive me, Your Highnesses, but isn’t she the reason your grandfather fled this land with your father in his arms because she tried to poison him?” Alexander raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“My initial reaction to your question is that none of us are safe as long as she is pulling strings in the background.” Eli chuckled nervously, realizing the truth of his statement. “But the reality is my niece and grandmother are both such flighty airheads, to borrow some American slang, I don’t think poisoning you would even cross their minds, especially if they don’t see you as a threat.” Eli fought the urge to raise his gaze to the brazen adornment on Mark’s head. Might as well throw it out there. Mark was playing with fire showing up at the palace wearing that crown.
“That’s… reassuring.” Mark gulped and glanced at Alexander.
Threats aside, Eli’s grandmother was the main catalyst for almost every problem their kingdom faced, and Mark would be in her sites before he stepped from the limo. Her first husband had barely been interred when she insisted her five-year-old son be named Crown. The notion was preposterous.
Not able to sway the king, Tayma seduced him instead. Before the year passed, she had him in her bed, and shortly thereafter the king had taken her on as a second wife. The scandal was unfathomable to someone as committed to purity as Eli. He would never defile a woman in such a way. Or himself for that matter.
“Oddly, my best advice is for you to flirt with them,” Eli said, realizing the hypocrisy in his words.
“What?” Mark’s jaw dropped.
“Stoke their already inflated egos. My grandmother is an immature sixty-seven years old but thinks she’s thirty-five and regularly takes much younger men as her lovers,” Eli said.
“Yeah, that ain’t happening,” Mark said, eyes wide and appearing disgusted at the thought.
“Nor do I recommend it,” Eli said, backpedaling. “But appeal to her youthfulness and treat her as a peer, then ask her about her lovely granddaughter.”
“The fifteen-year-old?” Mark gulped, looking mildly nauseated by this whole conversation.
“She has yet to choose a husband,” Eli explained. “A wealthy distant cousin, who also happens to be a prince whose roots trace back to Madain Saleh with only one generation removed? Yeah, you are perfect.”
“P—perfect?” Mark placed one hand on his stomach and Eli wondered if they’d need to pull the car over. Better offer clarification.
“I’m not saying you actually entertain the notion. I’m just giving you pointers on how best to survive the next few days.
“Gee, thanks.” Mark gulped. “I’ll take all this into consideration.”
“Oh, and Alexander—” Eli turned to Mark’s advisor, needing to address one other issue. “When advising your prince, pull him aside and stage-whisper in his ear rather than interrupt his conversation. You will be seen as a highly revered advisor with an impressive bloodline who elevates Prince Marcos’ status even loftier by mere association.”
Alexander sat up straighter and lifted his nose with an air of snobbery. Yeah, he wasn’t grasping the point Eli was trying to make.
“Perfect. Your acting skills are superb,” Eli said. “But remember to stay one step behind and to the right and never attempt to be his equal.”
Alexander’s shoulders drooped. “Gee thanks.”
“I’m just helping you guys out,” Eli said with a sigh. “I want you to enjoy your stay here. You can laugh about it later. Oh, and by the way, I am not your equal either. My status in our royal family is almost a step down from Alexander’s as your advisor.”
“You’re kidding,” Mark said.
“Not at all,” Eli said with resignation. “I was told by my father’s advisor that I should be walking to your left and one step behind Alexander.”
“Wow… okay,” Mark said. “Interesting.”
“Here we go,” Eli said as the limo came to a rolling stop before the main entrance of the palace. “Do not get out of the car until my father’s advisor opens the limo door for you, which he will, rather quickly I might add.”
The door to the limousine opened and Ahmed offered his calculating fake smile and bowed regally. “Prince Marcos Sayid. Welcome to Madain Saleh.”
Eli waited while Mark and then Alexander stepped from the limo. He and Kadin exited the vehicle as Ahmed introduced himself.
“I am Ahmed bet David, advisor to Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” The man bowed his head respectfully, if briefly. To his credit, Mark didn’t react to Ahmed’s emphasis on the word ‘crown’ in the mention of his prince.
“Allow me to present my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson,” Mark said, holding his hand out to his right as if displaying Alexander proudly.
“Cohen?” Ahmed raised his eyebrows. “Any relation to the late Levi Cohen?”
“I am his great-grandson by lineage of Nicholas Cohen,” Alexander said.
“A respected businessman in his own right,” Ahmed acknowledged.
“Thank you, I agree.” Alexander maintained his air of aloof haughtiness and Eli struggled to keep a straight face, remembering how he had complimented Alexander on his acting skills.
“I trust that you will enjoy your visit to our kingdom.” Ahmed’s subtle emphasis on the words ‘visit’ and ‘our’ were a little too obvious.
“Your cousin, His Highness Prince Elmer will escort you to your suite,” Ahmed said. Eli nearly rolled his eyes at the derogatory way Ahmed emphasized his given name. “We have arranged to have a grand reception for you this evening and formal attire is expected.”
“Naturally,” Mark said then took a step back and nodded to his cousin. “I will follow you, Your Highness.”
Eli pursed his lips and tried to hide a grin. He raised his eyebrows at his cousin as he led the way into the palace. Way to stick it to Ahmed, asking Eli to lead the way. Eli was almost certain Mark had done that on purpose.
“We’ve upkept your grandfather’s suite and you’ll be honored to be the first person sleeping there since he left,” Eli said, turning his head sideways and behind in much the same way a tour guide would explain a museum exhibit. “His Majesty, King Sayid, never gave up hope that his son would one day return to occupy his suite.”
“His Highness, Prince Marcos regretted on his deathbed that he hadn’t taken the time to do so,” Mark said. “Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he requested I return his body to our homeland.”
After multiple twists and turns and ascending two sets of grand staircases, they finally stopped in front of a set of ornately carved double doors
“Here we are,” Eli said, opening the doors to reveal an elegant sitting room.
Mark drifted slowly to the obviously more masculine of the two dressing tables, and glanced in the mirror as if imagining how his namesake would have sat here with his advisor behind him, attending to the care and management of the crown, in much the same way Kadin did for Eli.
Suddenly Mark turned to Eli. “Is your father’s advisor having an affair with the Princess of Tayma?”
“How on earth did you pick up on that?” Eli folded his arms and leaned against the door frame. The kid had only been in the kingdom ten minutes and hadn’t even met the princess. Yet he had already made that connection.
“The hand that rocks the cradle,” Mark said, his face a mixture of awe and alarm.
“I’m not following you.” Eli creased his brow.
“There’s an American saying about how the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” Mark explained. “Who is actually ruling our kingdom?”
Good question. “I’ll be interested to hear your take after you’ve been here a few days,” Eli said, creasing his brow. “Having an affair is one thing, influencing matters of state… I’m going to need some time to process that.” Tayma and Ahmed had been having an affair for several years and Eli suspected she controlled both sides of the crown; the king and his successor, whoever that turned out to be.
“Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see what’s right in front of our eyes,” Mark said, turning back to his grandfather’s suite. “What time shall we make our appearance at the reception?”
Eli took that as his dismissal and pushed away from the door jam. “The reception begins at seven o’clock, so I’d suggest arriving at about twenty minutes after the hour.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Mark said sincerely, stepping over and affectionately placing his hands atop Eli’s shoulders. “You have been a wealth of knowledge.”
“Glad to be of assistance, Your Highness,” Eli returned the sentiment. “I’ll see you at the reception.”
Eli took his leave and strode down the hall with a crease in his brow and a heavy heart. An outsider’s perspective indeed. Where would this new enlightenment lead him? He picked up his pace, wondering where his advisor had disappeared to upon arriving at the palace.
“Fancy private jet.” Kadin barely moved his lips, almost in full advisor mode, but not yet within earshot of anyone.
“Nice of them to keep us waiting this long,” Eli complained. His cousin’s plane had landed ten minutes prior and Eli and Kadin were baking in the desert sun. Although both were wearing formal linen robes meant to wick away heat and sweat from the body, nothing could tame the sun beating down. But Eli was determined to be the first person his cousin saw upon arriving on the tarmac. Make it clear one of the royal family had come to retrieve him rather than a driver.
Eli’s first thought as Prince Marcos appeared in the open doorway of the private jet was that he was very young, and uncomfortably regal as if this was new to him. What could he expect? The kid had grown up on the American continents. There was nothing regal about America. Haughty, but not regal. A hint of a smile played on his face when noticing Eli and then the kid descended the stairs with confidence.
Too much confidence.
The amount of confidence that dared him to wear his full crown as he arrived in the kingdom, as if asserting his position and dominance. This kid didn’t realize he was about to enter a lion’s den. Eli had two choices; let him get eaten alive or teach him how to tame lions. He’d rely on first impressions to decide how to proceed. He stepped forward and extended his hand, one of the few people in the kingdom equal enough to do so.
“Greetings, my cousin. I’m Eli.”
“Mark—” Prince Marcos reached for his cousin’s hand. Interesting. Of course, Eli had done the same thing in using his nickname upon introduction. The young prince cocked his head to the side and creased his brow. “What’s your real name?”
“Elmer,” Eli said through clenched teeth, wondering how he’d react and which of the American cartoon jokes he’d spout.
“I can see why you go by Eli.” Mark chuckled, not skirting the humor.
“Yeah, what were my parents thinking?” Eli’s fought a smirk and leaned his shoulder against the black Hummer limo again. Being a wealthy prince had its advantages. They traveled in style.
“Who is your father?” Mark asked, probably familiar with Jared, and their father, and the king, but not remembering the lessor prince of the family.
“Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Eli said, raising his chin slightly almost challenging Mark to question his father’s claim to the title. Not sure what made him slip his father’s former title before his name, Eli somehow wanted to remind Mark that when his grandfather left the kingdom forty years ago, the opinion within most of the royal family was that Omar was Crown. The title had been conferred upon his son Jared now, but Eli inherently wanted to make the distinction.
Mark didn’t bat an eyelash or alter his stoic expression. “My grandfather spoke highly of his nephew. Will I have the opportunity to meet him?”
“Absolutely,” Eli said. “We have a planned reception for you this evening.”
“I’m honored,” Mark said, then stepped aside and waved another young man forward. “This is my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Eli fought to maintain his own stoic expression. The Cohen family were practically royalty in the Middle East even though they made claim to no physical kingdom. Almost like being a Kennedy in the United States. If Mark’s advisor was a Cohen, that elevated his status considerably.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Alexander.” Eli greeted Alexander in a similar casual style as he’d greeted Mark minus the handshake.
“Likewise, Your Highness.” Alexander nodded his head respectfully.
“And this is my advisor, Kadin,” Eli said, indicating his best friend. Mark smiled and stood erect as Kadin bowed his head regally.
“My honor to meet you, Your Highness,” Kadin said.
While they were yet speaking, several gentlemen were busy lowering a casket from the jet and Eli turned reverently to watch as the late Prince Marcos Sayid was brought to the ground and rolled carefully into a waiting hearse.
“Come,” Eli said, opening the door to the waiting limo. “Let’s escort Prince Marcos home.”
I wish you were here. Eli hit send on his text, then added a follow-up. The palace is pandemonium scrambling to get ready for our stupid American cousin to arrive. Whatever.
Wish I was there too. If I could skip my mid-term, I’d fly home today. Savanna’s text brought a smile to Eli’s countenance. Is this kid even a cousin? Isn’t he your dad’s uncle’s grandson or something?
You have a good memory. You should do well on your mid-term tomorrow.
If only the test was on the history of Madain Saleh, Savannah texted. Seriously, I am really sorry for your family’s loss
Thanks. My dad and the king are both pretty upset. You’d think they would have gotten over Prince Marcos by now. I mean, he ran out on the family forty years ago.
That’s harsh, Eli, Savanna chastised him. Prince Marcos was the king’s son, and your dad’s only uncle. They loved him.
I know, I know, they never gave up hope he’d come home someday. I’ve heard the rhetoric all my life. Sucks that the first time I’ll meet him is in a coffin.
You can ask your cousin all about him.
Speaking of my cousin, your brother just walked in the door and is giving me that look. Guess it’s time to go pick up my cousin from the airport. Wish me luck.
Cut him some slack, Eli. Prince Marcos was his beloved grandfather. Just think, maybe you and this kid will become friends. His name is Prince Marcos also, right? Named after his grandpa. Just like your brother. Runs in the family.
Just so you know, you and I are not naming our first child after my father. Not happening. I’ll let you pick the name as long as it’s not Omar.
I hope this conversation implies you’re finally going to buy me a diamond and get down on one knee.
I told you, I’m not marrying you until you finish your undergrad and come home to stay. I can’t move to Jerusalem while my kingdom is in such turmoil and I’m not forcing you to quit school to come home.
Well, I’m coming home for the funeral in two days and I expect to return to the university with a diamond engagement ring at the very least.
Okay, okay, I’ll go talk to my grandma and see if I can raid her jewelry closet.
In that case, I want her hundred-year-old chocolate pear-shaped diamond with the thick band.
Eli leaned his head back and laughed heartily for the first time in several days. Everything had been somber since the announcement that his father’s uncle had died. Savannah was a welcome reminder that life would go back to normal someday.
I’ll see what I can do. Eli hit send.
“What’s so funny?” Kadin asked, still standing in the doorway to Eli’s sitting room, arms crossed, controlled impatience gracing his rehearsed expression. His dark-hair and copper skin were accented with strangely mysterious eyes. Couple his good looks with the fact that he was advisor to a prince and Kadin could claim any female under the age of thirty if he wanted. Maybe even older than thirty.
“Your sister is picking out engagement rings long distance,” Eli answered, still grinning.
“Who’s the lucky guy?”
“Shut up,” Eli grumbled, pushing himself off the sofa where he’d been lounging and texting his girlfriend. “You know darn well she’s marrying me.”
“Whatever you say, Your Highness.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Eli stood to his full height, not quite towering over his advisor and best friend, but tall enough that Kadin had to look up to meet his gaze.
“Maybe you should propose one of these days.” Kadin raised his eyebrows. “What are you waiting for?”
“I don’t want her to quit school for me,” Eli grumbled, his shoulders slouched.
“She won’t. I know my sister well. Nothing’s going to stop her from getting her degree. But I also know it’s time you gave her a firm commitment.”
“I know.” Eli huffed and almost stomped his feet on the way into his dressing room. He sat hard on his dressing stool and looked up at Kadin in the mirror as he approached from behind.
“What’s the real issue?” Kadin asked softly, laying his hands upon Eli’s shoulders and meeting his gaze in the mirror.
Eli didn’t want to admit out loud his real concerns about marrying Savannah, especially to her brother.
Her bloodline had never been a concern while they were growing up. Savannah and Kadin never treated Eli like a prince, and he never treated them like children of the staff.
But the reality was, Eli was expected to marry someone with royal blood. If he were Crown Prince, his spouse would have already been chosen for him, years ago. He worried about the fallout if he chose a bride outside of a royal bloodline.
“She’s not a princess.” Kadin’s statement wasn’t really a question.
“You know I don’t care about her bloodline,” Eli backpedaled.
“Then why let your father and great-grandfather dictate who you marry?” Kadin lifted his hands from Eli’s shoulders and stepped away, entering the walk-in closet and bringing out the leather bag that contained Eli’s crown.
As official advisor to Prince Elmer, Kadin’s job was to be keeper of the crown. There was no higher honor outside of the royal family than the person who watches out for his prince, stands by his side, acts as his eyes and ears, a de facto bodyguard and companion.
In a way, Kadin had been training for this job all his life, following Eli around with a level of hero-worship that came with being one year younger and always in his shadow.
But always beside him, willing to stick up for him, or kick a bully in the shin to protect him. Not that anyone on the playground would have dared bully a prince. The bully would be expelled from the school, banished from the palace, and his parents would likely lose their jobs. The sentiment was the same. Kadin would always be there for his prince.
Kadin rested the leather bag on Eli’s dressing table and lifted the velvet box from within. Opening the lid revealed Eli’s simple crown, not as elaborate as his older brother’s, or father’s, or great-grandfather’s.
And one other crown that had been missing for forty years and was about to reappear resting on the head of Eli’s cousin. The crown. The crown that represented the king’s successor. The crown that had once rested atop Eli’s grandfather, Jared, back when he was Crown Prince. Before his life ended in a tragic motorcycle accident.
That was the event that spiraled their kingdom into turmoil and split their family in two. Two opinions. Who was next in line if the Crown died before the king? Such an event had never occurred in the history of their kingdom.
Eli’s father was only five years old when his grandfather died, not old enough for a coronation, not old enough to be a successor should the king die. In the absence of his older brother, Prince Marcos insisted the title should be his. Eli’s grandmother insisted the title belonged to her son. The rest is legend and rumors. Poisoned food, dangerous snakes that just happened to slither into Prince Benjamin’s nursery, threats, illicit affairs, manipulations, fleeing for safety. Eli didn’t know what to believe.
One thing was certain; this cousin arriving from America claimed the title and wore the crown representing the king’s successor. What did that mean for the remainder of the royal family? How would his father and older brother react? That evening’s reception could be a bloodbath if they weren’t careful.
Eli watched as his advisor lifted his simple crown out of the velvet box and raised the band of gold above Eli’s head, then with reverence lowered the crown. Almost like a comfortable glove, the crown fit into place and Eli felt whole and at peace.
He raised his chin and was transformed into Prince Elmer Sayid of Madain Saleh. Whatever else happened that day, Eli knew his worth inherently lie within his blood. His mind returned to the discussion with Kadin about marrying his sister.
“You know—” Kadin rested his hands upon Eli’s shoulders again— “Regardless of her bloodline, the moment you marry Savannah, she becomes a princess. Think on that, my prince.”
Kadin had a point. Their wedding would be accompanied by a coronation at which time Prince Elmer Sayid would rest a beautiful crown of gold on her head and name her his princess. The thought brought a smile to Eli’s face and he nodded.
“Come on, Your Highness.” Kadin patted Eli on his back. “Let’s go retrieve your cousin from the airport.”
“I’ll come with you to meet her, Eli.” Savannah took his hand and pulled Eli toward the door of the playroom.
“I don’t want to meet her,” Eli whined, resisting, but only a little. “I don’t want to have anything to do with her.” He had made up his eight-year-old mind. He was too young to be an uncle.
Heck, his seventeen-year-old brother was too young to be a father. But the crown prince of the Kingdom of Madain Saleh was required to marry at the age of sixteen and expected to produce an heir immediately.
Jared had no argument getting married at sixteen and frequently shared details with Eli that his little ears didn’t want to hear.
Born Prince Elmer Sayid, Eli was just glad he hadn’t been born first. He was quite content hanging out with his friends in the little homeschool that had been established for the children of the palace.
Savannah, the daughter of the king’s captain of the guard, was his best friend, and her younger brother, Kadin followed them around like a puppy dog.
They never treated him special because he was a prince. Most everyone at the palace brushed him aside. Because he was so far removed from the title of Crown, he was of little importance.
Being the lesser prince never bothered him until now. He was free to run and play and have fun with his friends while his brother, Jared, had to learn how to run their kingdom. Not that Jared took his duties seriously.
Jared loved being Crown Prince for the perks. He was treated like a god and fawned over. It wasn’t enough to be married to an eighteen-year-old princess, Jared hadn’t attended the birth of his daughter because he was drunk and in bed with one of his many lovers.
And now Eli was expected to smile and pretend he was happy for his brother and congratulate him and profess his undying devotion to the baby princess who had just shoved him even further away from any claim to the title of Crown. Not that he cared.
“I’ll come with you too, Eli,” Kadin said. He grabbed Eli’s other hand and tugged.
Eli couldn’t resist them both. He dragged his feet all the way to the nursery where two nannies were already employed round the clock to care for the baby.
Jared would never lift a finger to change a diaper of feed the little princess, and likely his young bride wouldn’t either.
The Princess of Linah wasn’t exactly the mothering type. She had been selected and arranged to marry Jared based on her lineage, beauty, and connections in Jordon.
“There you are. It’s about time.” Jared’s brow creased when Savannah pushed Eli in the door of the nursery. “Can we get this family photo done already. I have other plans.”
Eli wanted to ask her name but bit his tongue. Highlighting Jared’s behavior in front of the entire royal family wouldn’t gain either of them favor.
Jared stood dutifully behind and to the left of his wife, who was holding a little pink bundle. Their great-grandparents King Sayid and Queen Salaina took their place of honor at the far left of the group. The king’s second wife, Eli’s grandmother, the Princess of Tayma stood next to her son, Eli’s father Prince Omar, with their mother to his right.
Eli didn’t know where he fit in this crazy group. He was the only man in the room not wearing a crown, because he wasn’t old enough, and his status had now been downgraded below that of his infant niece. Why even pose for the photograph?
As he took his place to the far right of the group, Eli glanced over at his two best friends, the only people he knew cared about him unconditionally and found them both making funny faces at him.
The smile that lit Eli’s face at precisely the moment the photographer took the group photo of the Sayid Royal Family, had nothing to do with happiness in his family, and everything to do with his goofy best friends.
“Sorry about your dad, man,” Aaron said. “That sucks.” As the oldest brother, Aaron was supposed to be the leader and had encouraged Alex and the young princes to approach Noah Adlin’s fifteen-year-old son.
“Thanks,” Logan mumbled. He pulled at his necktie then pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. The designer suit someone had forced him to wear didn’t hide his scrawny frame.
Gus knew the responsibility of befriending Logan would eventually fall on his shoulders. They were the same age and in the same grade. He and his best friend, Alex, would purposely go out of their way to hang out with this geeky little guy who had just lost his father.
The funeral home wasn’t packed, but those in attendance were the country club snobs from the hills of Logan’s neighborhood.
If Logan lived among the upper class in Kingston, Prince Augustus Sayid and his older brothers and parents lived among the uber-rich, meaning they had no neighbors within a few miles’ radius. They secluded themselves in their sprawling tree house that was literally built over a flowing waterfall.
The only family that came close to matching their wealth was the Stephenson’s, and they preferred to live closer to town. Alexander Stephenson, Sr. was best friend and advisor to the Gus’s father, Crown Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh.
“You’re in my geometry class, right?” Gus asked, knowing it was a rhetorical question. “I never knew our dads were friends.”
“Yeah, I like math.” Probably the smartest kid in their freshman class, Logan always had a book in his hand, and usually kept his head down, avoiding eye contact. He was the poster child for an anti-bullying campaign.
“I don’t think they’ve been friends since a long time ago,” Aaron pointed out. “They all went to college together, right?”
“My dad hung out with your dad at spring break down in Cancun or something. That was when he met your mom.” Logan finally lifted his gaze. “They were all college roommates.” Logan glanced over at Alex, including him in that group.
Alexander Stephenson, Jr. had been born within a few days from Gus and they grew up with a bond stronger than best friends. Alex was an honorary brother to the young princes.
“Back when our dads were party animals.” Alex snickered and pushed Logan’s shoulder lightly. Logan stumbled. “Dude, sorry, don’t know my own strength.” Alex grabbed Logan and righted him.
“I’m just really lanky.” Logan apologized. “You can knock me over with a feather. That’s what the bullies say.”
“Do you get bullied a lot, little man?” Aaron asked, a crease in his brow.
“Not every day,” Logan said. “Just most days.”
“Do your parents know?” Aaron had transferred his big-brother persona onto their new friend. As a senior in high school, Aaron seemed more like a man and less like a teenager. Being less than two years away from his coronation as Crown Prince, he took on a maturity that was protective of his younger brothers and their friends. Coupling that with his athletic physique, good looks, and wealth, he ruled their high school with more authority than their father ruled their kingdom.
“They’re usually busy.” Logan lowered his gaze again. “Well, my dad won’t be busy anymore.”
They all glanced over at the open casket where Logan’s mom was receiving guests with a lacy handkerchief in one hand, faking emotions as she accepted their condolences and made plans for next week’s golf outing.
Kingston’s former mayor, Noah Adlin, had officially died of a heart attack, according to autopsy reports. Suspiciously, this sudden heart attack occurred within twenty-four hours of his former business partner, Andrew Huron’s release from prison. No one seemed to be looking for Andrew, who had skipped town. No one seemed to be questioning why an otherwise healthy forty-three-year-old man would suddenly die of a heart attack.
“Well, you’re not gonna get bullied anymore.” Aaron said, draping his arm across Logan’s shoulder. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“Yeah, and Alex and I will sit with you at lunch tomorrow.” Gus reached over and bumped fists with his best friend. He wondered if the harem of girls who followed them everywhere would join them.
“And because we’re all so close in age, you’ve now got a buddy in the sophomore and junior class as well.” Hayden waved his finger back and forth between himself and their older brother, Owen.
“Thanks, guys, I don’t know what to say. I’ve never had friends.” Logan smiled shyly. “Much less friends who are the most popular guys at our whole school.”
“Well you do now.” Gus felt better about being dragged to this funeral for a man he’d never met, and if rumors were correct, had been a corrupt politician who had masterminded the ultimate municipal corruption scandal. Noah’s schemes had cost taxpayers millions of dollars and destroyed a lot of blue-collar jobs in their town. Allegedly.
Noah Adlin never got caught or indicted for his crimes and let his business partner Andrew take the fall for everything, receiving a fifteen-year prison sentence. Noah continued to throw money around like he owned the town. Logan would forever walk in his father’s shadow.
Gus refused to stand back and watch Logan pay for his father’s crimes. If he happened to get a free math tutor out of the deal, even better. High school was going to be the best four years of Gus’s life. He smirked at Alex, already planning their future.
“So, why did you call this meeting, Your Highness?” Alex clicked the key fob to lock his Porsche, more out of habit than necessity. Mark and Hazel’s property was so isolated the likelihood of anyone stealing his car was slim.
Mark stood in the doorway proudly displaying his three-month-old baby as if this was the first time Alex had met Prince Hayden.
Alex felt a little twinge of jealousy in his stomach wondering why he wasn’t celebrating the future arrival of his own baby. He and Krystina had been married for five months and not a sign of life yet. None that he knew of anyway.
He did what any best friend would do and cooed at the little prince to show his unending devotion to the child, shoving aside his own frustration.
“I didn’t call the meeting,” Mark said, stepping back to let Alex enter the home ahead of him. Both of their wives were in the kitchen cooking up something that smelled heavenly. “I thought you did.”
“No, Krystina told me to come straight here after work because you guys wanted us over for dinner.” Alex slipped off his Oxford dress shoes and removed his suitcoat, carefully hanging it on the hook in the foyer.
“Hazel told me you and Krystina wanted to come over for dinner. She made it seem like you had some big announcement to make.” Mark leaned closer and whispered. “You’re not having a baby, or something are you?”
“I wish.” Alex creased his brow. “You’re gonna need to tell me the secret to success because I’m not doing something right. My failure sure isn’t from lack of trying.”
“I think I need to learn how to get this to stop.” Mark joked, holding up his pride and joy as if he wasn’t loving being a dad. “They just keep popping out. I’m single-handedly ensuring the continuation of our monarchy.”
Hazel came around the corner into the foyer. “Who is single-handedly ensuring the future of our monarchy?” Hazel raised her eyebrows and placed her hands on her hips.
“You are, Princess, of course.” Mark leaned over to give her a kiss.
“Speaking of your progeny, could the two of you please locate the older princes and get their hands washed for dinner?” Hazel reached for baby Hayden, not waiting for an answer to her rhetorical question.
“Right away, Your Highness.” Alex nodded to his younger cousin and stepped all the way into the kitchen to give his wife Krystina a hug and kiss before heading to the living room.
Mark was already lifting Owen from the playpen that sat within sight of the open kitchen. Aaron hopped up from the floor of the living room where he’d been zooming cars through an elaborate network of roads built using a variety of building materials including most of the books from the shelves, CD and DVD cases, plastic placemats with cartoon characters, and some magazines.
Alex figured Mark had the boys under control, so he sauntered over to the dining room table where a Caesar salad rested in the middle of the table along with a breadbasket full of crispy and buttery garlic bread. Alex felt his mouth water. His hunger was momentarily displaced by an interesting addition to an otherwise normal dining room table.
In front of his place setting was a blue envelope with his name written on the outside. A matching envelope sat in front of Mark’s place setting. Neither of them had a birthday anytime soon. Alex picked up his card.
“Don’t you dare!” Krystina called out. “You boys have to open those together.”
“Boys?” Alex placed his card back on the table and turned to his wife with a playful grin. “I think the word you meant was men.”
“Boys, men, same thing.” She giggled as Alex pulled her into his arms. “You all want the same thing.”
“Food.” Alex and Krystina said at the same time.
“You know me so well, darlin’.” He leaned closer for a little kiss then whispered, “Besides, the other thing I want needs to wait until we get home.”
“I can wait,” Krystina whispered back.
“Who’s ready for dinner?” Mark called out, a boy hanging from each arm.
Krystina pulled one-year-old Owen out of Mark’s right arm and took him over to his highchair.
Mark carried three-year-old Aaron like a monkey hanging from his left arm and strapped him into his booster seat.
Hazel brought the bouncy seat with her to rest three-month-old Hayden next to her on the buffet.
Alex pulled the chair out for his wife to sit, then lowered himself into the chair by her side. “So, ladies, what’s this all about?”
“To what do we owe the honor of our favorite homemade lasagna and garlic bread?” Mark asked, lifting the blue envelope sitting in front of his plate.
“You have to open them at the same time.” Hazel bit her lower lip and glanced over at Krystina. Was that nervousness or excitement?
“On the count of three?” Alex chuckled as they both lifted the flap on their envelope.
Alex momentarily forgot he was hungry when butterflies of excitement leapt from deep within his stomach and his jaw dropped at the little black and white photograph tucked within a Happy Father’s Day card.
A note in Krystina’s handwriting said, Announcing the arrival of Alexander Stephenson, Junior, November 14th.
“Are you serious?” Alex gazed at his wife in awe, a warmth filling his heart and a chill running down his arms. She grinned but then nodded toward the other side of the table where Mark was holding a similar Father’s Day card with his own little black and white photograph.
Mark’s jaw dropped as he glanced at his baby, toddler, and preschooler, then back to his lovely bride, Alex’s cousin, Hazel. Mark gulped then read with a smile, “Announcing the arrival of Prince Augustus Sayid, November 14th.”
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Hazel blinked innocent eyes at her prince.
“No comment,” Noah said again, pushing through the crowd of reporters interrogating him as he tried to leave city hall. The six o’clock news cameras weren’t portraying Noah kindly.
Alex shook his head with a sigh and reached for the remote control to hear the television better. Unfortunately, his former college roommate had dug this hole for himself and no one would bail him out.
Because his real estate office was practically across the street from city hall, Alex had a front row seat as the scandal broke. Now watching it play back on the evening news was like rubbing salt in a wound.
Large, professional news cameras and microphones were shoved in Noah’s face and he visibly cringed away from them, fumbling for his car keys.
The reporters shouted questions at Noah as he hurried to his shiny, black Mercedes Benz.
“Mayor Adlin, how do you respond to allegations made by your former business partner that you were the mastermind behind the illegal operations at Domrey?”
“Mayor, are you cooperating with the police during the investigation?”
“Will you be testifying at Mr. Huron’s trial?”
“Will you be resigning as mayor of the City of Kingston?”
“Did you use taxpayers’ money to purchase cars and homes and pay for vacations as Mr. Huron claimed?”
“Do you intend to make restitution to your former employees as the prince and councilman have done?”
To that, Noah’s head snapped up and glared at the reporter. He narrowed his eyes then climbed into his car without responding, hiding behind the darkened windows. He nearly plowed through the crowd of reporters as he gunned his engine and sped from the parking lot at city hall.
The story continued for a few more moments and then the news anchors cut to the next main headline and Alex clicked the television off wishing he could make the story go away as fast as the changing of the headlines.
Andrew Huron’s trial would likely drag on for months. The prosecutors had little more than circumstantial evidence against Drew for the murder charges, but solid evidence for multiple charges of corruption and tax evasion. Drew would be locked up for many years.
Noah’s letter of resignation arrived in the inboxes of the city council members late that evening. Alex wasn’t surprised to see the email after witnessing that circus of reporters on the six o’clock news.
Alex picked up the phone and dialed the chairman of the city council, assuming they’d be calling an emergency meeting to address the ongoing investigation, and the need to appoint the vice-mayor as acting mayor until further notice. He’d never regretted choosing involvement in public service, but this wasn’t what Alex had in mind when running for city council.
“Who would be calling this late at night?” Krystina asked, rolling over with a groan and pulling the bed sheets with her.
“I can only think of one person, and it’s rarely good news.” Alex barely opened his eyes and used muscle memory and a sense of touch to answer his phone. “What can I do for you, Your Highness?”
“Get over here immediately!” Mark’s panicked tone startled Alex awake.
“What’s wrong, man?” Alex barely registered changing to such a casual response. From years of careful practice, he rarely slipped anymore. He sat up and clicked on the bedside table lamp. The clock read 3:28 a.m.
“I need you to come babysit my boys. Hazel’s water broke.” From Mark’s breathless excitement it would seem this was their first baby rather than their third.
“Oh wow!” Alex was suddenly wide awake. He called out to Krystina as if she wasn’t two feet away on her side of the bed. “We’re going to have a baby!”
“We’re what?” Krystina sat up with a start. She moved her hand to her abdomen.
“Not you.” Alex smiled over at his wife. “I mean, yeah, someday, I hope. No, Hazel. Hazel’s gonna have her baby.”
“Oh! Baby Hayden is coming!” Krystina was out of bed even quicker than Alex.
“We’ll be there as soon as we can, Your Highness.” Alex clicked off his phone and tossed it on the nightstand, fumbling for the slacks he’d discarded beside the bed the night before.
They were like two cartoon characters scrambling around the room gathering clothes and shoes and wallets and purses and cell phones and taking turns using the bathroom and brushing their teeth and gathering anything they might want if they needed to camp out at the Sayid’s home for a couple of days.
Within twenty minutes from being awakened by the ringing of the phone, they were buckled into the Porsche and backing out of the driveway.
Alex wished he had a helicopter to shave valuable time off the drive up the Hudson River, across the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge and into the hills. This was one reason he always wanted to live close to town.
An ambulance was already in the driveway by the time Alex and Krystina reached Mark and Hazel’s tree house on the waterfall. Hazel was on a stretcher and two paramedics pushed her toward the waiting vehicle. Alex slammed on his brakes, pulling way off the side to get out of the way.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Mark called from the doorway when he saw them hurrying up the sidewalk. “The boys are still asleep. I’m riding in the ambulance.”
“What happened? Is she hemorrhaging or something? Why the ambulance?”
“Her contractions are like three minutes apart,” Mark said. “I didn’t want to take any chances of not getting there in time.”
Alex stepped closer to the open back door of the ambulance where a paramedic was preparing an IV bag. “Good luck, Princess,” Alex called. “Can’t wait to meet little Prince Hayden.”
“Take care of my boys, Alex,” Hazel called back, only grimacing a little.
“You know we will, Your Highness. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“Thanks for getting here so quickly,” Mark said from beside him, offering a half-hug half-handshake.
“Anytime, Your Highness,” Alex said, hugging him back. “Now get up in that ambulance and call me when you’ve got a baby boy in your arms.”
Mark climbed in, the ambulance doors shut, and they pulled down the long driveway toward the main road, lights spinning and flashing.
Krystina was already in the house. Alex found her standing in the boys’ bedroom gazing into the baby’s crib. “Their children are all going to be so close together.”
“I know, what the heck are they thinking?” Alex joked. Owen’s little eyes twitched in deep sleep. His arms formed a near-perfect archer’s pose and his legs flopped to the side, snuggled in footy pajamas. At just over ten months old, he was about to become a big brother.
“Can we have a baby too?” Krystina threaded her arms around Alex’s waist.
“Absolutely.” Alex wrapped his arms around his wife, pulling her close. “As soon as you’re ready.”
“I’m ready.” She gazed up at him with a soft smile.
“Hopefully our baby won’t mind growing up in the shadow of a couple of adorable princes.”
“Three adorable princes,” Krystina pointed out.
“Hopefully we don’t have a little girl, or I’ll be fighting off three adorable princes,” Alex said. He glanced over at Aaron, his blankie in one arm and his other thumb resting suspiciously close to his mouth as if he wasn’t quite old enough to give up the habit yet.
“We should probably have a boy then.” Krystina giggled. She pulled Alex out into the hallway and closed the boys’ bedroom door until just a crack showed through for a nightlight.
“A boy it is, then.” Alex gathered Krystina into his arms and sealed his mock promise with a kiss.
“Thank you all for joining us during these trying times,” Alex called through a microphone placed on a raised platform at one end of the factory floor, gazing out at seventy-six previous employees, several government officials, and a dozen members of the press who were recording every word that was said.
The usual flash and spark of welding, grinding of metal, and whirring of industrial-sized fans was replaced by flashing and snapping of photographs for news articles and murmuring of disgruntled men and women who were no longer employed. Alex shifted onto his right leg, trying not to fidget or make himself look guilty or nervous.
“We were shocked and disappointed hearing that our business partner and long-time friend had been conducting illegal activity right here in our community,” Alex said. “I will leave the investigations of wrongdoings in the capable hands of our law enforcement agencies and step aside to let them determine who else was involved in the illegal transactions.”
Alex fought the urge to sweep his gaze sideways to where Noah stood at his right.
“As you are all aware, Domrey is closing our doors for the foreseeable future. We will be liquidating all assets. Mr. Huron’s share of the company will be used to pay any legal fees and to support his extended stay in the State penitentiary.” Alex let out a chuckle of irony. “With my shares of the company, I intend to provide severance payments to all of you, equally divided among all former employees.”
Murmurs of shock and appreciation resounded throughout the floor of the factory. Alex stepped back and allowed Mark to take the floor.
“My friends and neighbors,” Mark said into the microphone. “I, also, will be dividing my share of the company equally among all of you. I do not wish to profit from this hardship. Thank you for your years of service to the company. I wish there was more we could do for you.”
Mark took a step back and looked over at Noah, whose politician fake-smile held a twinge of falsified sympathy. Mark held out his hand, offering Noah his chance at the microphone. Noah stepped forward.
“What kind benefactors we have here,” Noah said, smiling sweetly. “Can we offer them a round of applause in appreciation for their generosity?” Noah stepped back with a sweep of his hands leading the applause as if he weren’t mostly at fault for the whole situation. What he didn’t offer was his share of the liquidation. Snake.
Mark narrowed his eyes at Noah as he moved forward again to the microphone. Noah’s smile faltered a fraction and he gulped. His response was probably not visible beyond a few feet radius, but Alex could tell that Noah knew he wasn’t fooling everyone.
“One other thing”—Mark’s voice contained an edge that hadn’t been there prior, and he almost seemed to be gritting his teeth— “We will be cooperating with law enforcement to provide any documentation they require to complete a full investigation and determine who else was involved in illegal transactions within this company as well as local government officials, contractors, surveyors, installers, or developers.”
There was an uncomfortable shift in the mood on the factory floor. Most people seemed concerned or angry, but a few people shifted their stance, or glanced around the room at one another. Alex knew the FBI agents would be watching for these reactions and he hoped others would be prosecuted and Drew wouldn’t take the fall for everyone.
“If any of you in this room were involved,” Mark continued. “I encourage you to turn yourselves in and take responsibility for your actions. Illegal activities that involve our local government affect the law-abiding citizens and our ability to provide services to our community. That’s all I have to say at this time. Any members of the press can contact us directly.”
With that, Mark reached up to click off the microphone and pushed past Noah, hurrying down the steps and off the podium. He ducked out the side door. Although legal investigations were far from over, the press conference definitely was. Alex narrowed his eyes at Noah and then followed Mark.
“We could stay at your condo for a few days, and then my house for a few days, and see which one we like the best,” Krystina suggested, shifting in the smooth leather seat and taking another bite of the decadent meal that had been prepared by the professional chef onboard the private jet.
They hadn’t taken into consideration the subject of where they would live after they got home to Kingston until they were on the flight home. Combining two households shouldn’t be too difficult as long as they were flexible.
“I’m not picky,” Alex said, reaching for her hand. “I can sleep anywhere, as long as I get to sleep next to you. We can live at your house.” Although eating was a necessity, sitting on separate airplane seats, no matter how luxurious, was too many feet apart. Riding onboard a jet with two babies, a prince and princess, a chef, an attendant, and two pilots for almost twenty-four hours was near torture.
“Ah, you’re so sweet, Alex.” Krystina leaned over to give him a kiss. “All I want is to sleep next to you as well. Of course, sleep wasn’t really what I had in mind.”
“Me neither,” Alex mumbled. Being newlyweds meant every waking moment they longed to be in each other’s arms, and sleeping was an unfortunate necessity. Being around other people should not be required. And yet it was.
“You two are gross.” Mark held a bottle and gently rocked baby Owen in his arms while Hazel fed bits of cooked vegetables, cut up fruit, and perfectly marinated chicken breast to their two-year-old, Aaron. Even though she placed just a few pieces of food on his tray at a time, some pieces ended up on the carpet. “There are children on this airplane, and we are trying to eat.”
“I am trying to eat!” Aaron held up a smushed baby carrot that looked like it had been half-eaten already. “I am gross.” All the adults chuckled. Aaron was buckled into a portable highchair that had been strapped in place, effectively destroying another expensive leather airplane seat.
“We’re just talking about naptime, little buddy,” Alex said, picking up a chunk of melon that had been knocked to the floor. He reached over to a make-shift garbage bag and flicked the bit of melon. “Are you almost ready for your naptime?”
“Nope.” Aaron shook his head adamantly then yawned involuntarily. “No nap.” His tone made it clear that he was in charge, or at least thought he was.
“I’m ready for my nap,” Hazel said, only half-faking a yawn if her countenance was any indication. “I’m so tired I could fall asleep in this chair.”
“Can I sleep in your chair too, mommy?” Aaron asked.
“Not until after you finish your dinner and get your little hands cleaned off,” Hazel answered him, her face serious.
Aaron picked up another bite of food, chewing quickly in anticipation of snuggling in a chair with his mommy.
“Not sleeping in the back bedroom this evening?” Alex asked Hazel, attempting to keep his voice free of hope but knowing he failed miserably.
“No, Mark and I decided we’d like you and Krystina to sleep in the back bedroom this trip since you had to sleep in the uncomfortable airplane seats on the way here,” Hazel said. If snuggling together in a spacious and luxurious leather seat on a private jet could be considered uncomfortable, then yes. Since that had been the first time he’d fallen asleep with Krystina in his arms, the experience hadn’t been all that bad.
“And because we’re afraid of what may or may not happen in front of our children if you don’t,” Mark mumbled. Valid concern considering Alex was having a hard time keeping his hands off his new bride in broad daylight with everyone still awake.
“Are you finished with dinner, sweetheart?” Alex turned to Krystina, his face a complete mask of pretend innocence. His heart raced with anticipation of adjourning present company.
“Don’t you want desert?” Krystina asked, stabbing her last bite of chicken before delicately placing the bite on her tongue and slowly pulling her fork back through her lips. Alex almost moaned out loud.
“Yep… I sure do.” Alex raised his eyebrows at her.
“Please leave,” Mark commanded in controlled humor. “I don’t want to see the two of you until we land, and then for about six weeks after we’re home.”
All four adults chuckled again, and Aaron laughed heartily, even though his two-year-old brain had no idea why he was laughing.
“If you insist, Your Highness.” Alex pushed aside the tray where his dinner had rested and rose from his seat. He leaned over and kissed Aaron on his forehead then offered his hand to help Krystina up from her seat.
“Were we ever that bad?” Mark grumbled to Hazel.
“We still are sweetheart.” Hazel reached over to place her hand on Mark’s knee.
“Hence the reason you’re soon to be celebrating baby number three.” Alex leaned over and kissed Owen’s forehead where he was nearly asleep in Mark’s arms, still with the bottle half in and half out of his little mouth.
“I owe you a sincere apology.” Mark looked up at Alex with remorse.
“Well, my prince, you just paid me back by giving up your comfortable bed for this tortuously long plane ride.” Alex patted Mark on the shoulder then held out his hand inviting Krystina to lead the way. Before leaving the main cabin, Alex perused the cart laden with deserts and selected a piece of cheesecake and bowl of strawberries. “I believe the lady asked for dessert.”
Krystina giggled and Mark faked a gagging sound. With no further discussion, Alex followed his bride to the back bedroom, pulled the door shut behind them and clicked the lock into place.
Trust no one. That was the underlying theme as preparations were made for Prince Jared’s funeral.
The best thing Prince Marcos and his family could do was get out of the kingdom as quickly as possible and leave the day-to-day operations in the capable, if only limited, hands of Prince Elmer. Mark and Alex had even decided not to stick around after the funeral for a luncheon with the royal family.
Once again, the king boldly requested Prince Marcos stand to his right during the formal funeral proceedings, sending the clear message that Mark would be his predecessor should anything happen to the king.
The entire free world was aware that Prince Elmer was ambassador to the United Nations, and Marcos Sayid was Crown Prince. Anything less than full cooperation among the royal family would likely cause a civil war.
They had the perfect excuse to board their private jet and leave the country since one of their business partners had been arrested in the United States. Not to mention Princess Hazel’s delicate condition and the impending arrival of Prince Hayden.
Mark and Alex had a private meeting the morning before the funeral with the king, Eli, and his advisor, Kadin. Everyone knew Ahmed killed Jared, yet no one could prove his guilt. The entire household seemed to have an unspoken agreement of secrecy. The only thing keeping Eli and the king alive was the assumption they were in on it too. Murder investigations were only effective if there was a way to punish the murderer. For now, they were at a loss as what to do.
Alex didn’t want to voice his opinion, even to his prince, but had the sneaking suspicion that Madain Saleh was slated to be absorbed into their host country as a bygone kingdom that had outlived its purpose. Saudi Arabia would soon be the proud owners of a very nice artesian spring that provided the highest-quality water source in the Arabian peninsula, some historically significant ruins, and a state-of-the-art modern palace built by a wealthy and snobby royal family who couldn’t get along well enough to govern themselves.
The funeral procession from the palace to the royal tombs included King Sayid in point position with Prince Marcos to his right, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, and Prince Elmer to his left but one step behind. That alone was enough to send a clear message to the kingdom and the world.
Alex and Princess Hazel stood one step behind Prince Marcos, Alex to the right, Hazel to the left, with little Prince Aaron in between, holding each of their hands. Alex’s wife, Krystina walked immediately behind them carrying baby Prince Owen.
To the king’s left, Eli’s advisor, Kadin stood behind and to his right shoulder, with Princess Savannah to his left and the two of them holding hands with little Prince Ethan, who was nearly the same age as Aaron.
The queen was not healthy enough to accompany the funeral procession, but the king’s second wife, the Princess of Tayma walked a few feet behind the king with her son Omar one step behind and to her right, along with his wife and a new advisor whom Alex hadn’t met. The Princess of Nimrah was at Tayma’s left shoulder along with her husband, the known murderer, Ahmed.
The one notable exception to this otherwise standard processional, was Jared’s widow, the Princess of Linah, clinging to the king’s arm and faking tears like an award-winning actress.
Alex was beyond ready to leave this backwards desert kingdom and return to the modern world, and greenery, of the Hudson Valley in the beautiful State of New York.
Although he would follow his prince to the ends of the earth, or the deserts of Madain Saleh, he hoped the king didn’t die anytime soon.
In the foggy awareness of late morning, Alex was awakened to the sound of pounding. The door? He sat up halfway and glanced at their closed bedroom door. No, the noise would be louder.
He turned over again and smiled at the sleeping angel in his bed. Every kiss from the night before, every touch, every soft moan of pleasure came rushing back into his mind and he leaned forward to kiss her sleeping lips before snuggling back into the covers with her.
There was the pounding again. Alex sat up. Definitely a door. He remembered there were two doors to this suite and the one he was looking at was the interior door to their bedroom.
Alex pulled on a pair of sweats that lay beside the bed and didn’t bother with a shirt. Whoever was trying to get his attention pounded on the door again. The only person bold enough to awaken him from his marriage bed was his prince.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he muttered as his bare feet padded across the Persian rug. He unlocked and pulled open the door to Prince Marcos standing there with a cell phone in his hand. “Whaduyou want?”
“Andrew’s been arrested,” Mark said with an angry scowl.
Alex opened the door enough to let Mark into the sitting room, then walked across the room to pull closed the bedroom door where his bride was still asleep—and without apparel. Although covered by tangled sheets and a comforter, he didn’t want her waking to company. He turned back to Mark. “Did you at least bring me caffeine or something?”
“No, you’re fine,” Mark snapped at him, pacing back and forth in the small space. “You can take a nap later.”
“Believe me, I will,” Alex mumbled under his breath then chuckled and barely hid a grin. He cleared his throat and raised his attention back to his prince, who now had a knowing smirk on his otherwise angry face. “You were saying? About Drew being arrested?”
“They pinned it all on him.” Mark sank into one of the leather armchairs that sat beside the bookcase. “There was no trace of Noah’s involvement. Everything was hidden behind the business name and Andrew Huron’s signature.”
“Noah’s getting off without even a slap on the wrist?” Alex shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“The factory and Drew’s office were raided by a team of FBI agents and they confiscated everything. Our business is pretty much defunct, and all the employees have lost their jobs.”
“We have to do something for them,” Alex said, sitting opposite Mark on the other chair. “We can’t just leave them all without employment.”
“I agree,” Mark said. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I’ll send out a mass email to all the employees and tell them… something. I don’t know what. You got any suggestions?” He lifted his gaze and raised his eyebrows.
“Massive severance bonus checks?” Alex held open his hands and shrugged.
“Yeah, I’ll tell them we’re working on something. We can think about it and decide later.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Alex rose from the chair. “Can I go back to bed now, Your Highness? I was a little busy when you interrupted.”
“Sorry about that, man.” Mark stood and patted Alex on the shoulder as he headed for the outer door of the suite. “You really should go somewhere more private for your honeymoon.”
“And leave my prince when we’re in the middle of two murder investigations? Not a chance.”
“Thanks, man. That means a lot to me.” Mark returned to give Alex a half-hug-slash-handshake then wrinkled his nose and stepped back toward the door. “Gross, dude, you smell like perfume or… something. Ugh. I’m outta here.”
“Your own fault for showing up uninvited,” Alex called to Mark as he closed the outer door behind him. He reached up to turn the lock, then headed back to their bedroom with a soft smile of anticipation.
“Two years ago, I came home from college and took a job in the county building permits office. While I’d been away at the university, these four cocky rich guys moved into town and started a company with this state-of-the-art factory building solar panels and stuff. Everyone in town loved these four guys because they provided about a hundred new jobs.”
“Seventy-six, actually.” Alex coughed playfully.
“Okay, seventy-six new jobs. Close enough. Anyway, one of the guys was so arrogant he challenged our long-standing mayor and won. One of the guys was a complete recluse and lived across the river in a super fancy house with his young bride and their baby boy. He was rumored to be a prince or sultan or something, but no one really knew because he didn’t show his face in public.”
“Didn’t mean to be so mysterious,” Mark said.
“Shh…” Hazel said. “I want to hear the rest of the story.”
“The other two guys both ran for city council. That’s when I first saw Alex.” Krystina squeezed his hands and he felt his cheeks heat. Yep, he was blushing. “One of the guys was more like a used car salesman and he mostly ran the business and the factory.
“The other guy was a real estate developer, a little more reserved, content to allow his buddies to take the spotlight. But his sultry brown eyes wandered the crowd, surveying everything and everyone. He had a cocky smile and oozed the kind of confidence a guy can only get by being the richest man in the room.”
“Second richest if Prince Marcos was in the room.” Alex winked at Krystina and let go of her hand long enough to reach over to Mark for a fist bump. “Sorry, continue.”
“Anyway, I couldn’t take my eyes off him and leaned over to my friend asking, ‘Who is that?’ She told me everything she knew about him, which wasn’t much. But it was irrelevant. I was smitten at first site. He was totally out of my league though and I knew he’d never notice me. Until he walked into my office a few weeks ago and I made a complete fool of myself drooling over him.”
“You were adorable,” Alex said, his husky voice lowering.
“Alex, I was drawn to do for your looks and confidence and smile and those brown eyes, but after spending the afternoon laughing with you, I fell hard. You were so much more than I ever realized, and I love the man you are on the inside. I promise to be the best wife I can be for you, although I have no idea what you’re looking for in a wife.”
“You,” Alex whispered.
“I, Krystina Clark, take you, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson, to be my husband, to have and to hold for as long as we both shall live.”
Alex held her gaze and mouthed the words, I love you. Krystina mouthed them back. They just stared into each other’s eyes like lovesick kids. Someone in the room sniffed, probably Hazel.
King Sayid stepped forward again. “Were those the right words?”
“They were perfect,” Alex said.
“Okay, then, here is the contract.” The king spread the paperwork onto his desk and held out an elegant pen.
“Would you care to sign first, my lady?” Alex raised his eyebrows at Krystina, who stepped forward and took the pen from the king.
Krystina leaned over and confidently signed her name, then handed the pen to Alex.
Alex leaned forward and held his hand above the most sacred document he’d ever received the privilege to sign. His hand was steady as he wrote his signature, then he took a step back and held out the pen to his best friend. “Your Highness, would you do the honor?”
Mark’s scrawling name contained his title and read, Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh. He handed the pen to Eli, whose signature read, Prince Elmer Sayid of Madain Saleh.
The final signature added at the bottom of the page read, King Sayid of Madain Saleh. He stepped back and grinned at Alex and then Krystina. “By the power vested in me by the Kingdom of Madain Saleh, I hereby pronounce you husband and wife.” He leaned closer to Krystina and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Are you sure you don’t want me to put a crown on your head?” Everyone in the room chuckled, some through their sniffling.
“Nah, I think I’m good.” Krystina wrapped her arms around Alex’s waist. “I don’t need a prince. I have a councilman.”
“Can I kiss my bride now?” Alex asked the king.
“Sure.” Sayid stepped back.
Alex reached his hands up and lifted Krystina’s face, then lowered his lips to hers. There was a hint of passion in his kiss, more a promise of passion later that night.
Everyone in the room applauded, and so did Krystina’s mom, pausing only to wipe tears from her cheeks. Krystina’s father leaned closer to the computer and looked right into the camera.
“Hey, you, mister fancy councilman”—Lincoln paused to dab at his cheeks— “You’d better take care of my little girl, you hear?”
“Yes sir, I promise. You have my word.” Alex stopped, his throat choking with emotion. He stepped back and his bride stepped forward to say goodbye to her parents.
“Bye Momma and Daddy.” She waved from the other side of the planet. “Thanks for being here.”
“You look beautiful, sweetheart,” Tammy said. “Congratulations.”
Her father never said anything else, but Alex could see him in the background dabbing at his eyes.
By the time they had completed their goodbyes, everyone else had left the office, other than the king. “You kids head on out of here now. I’ll close down the computer and lock up. Congratulations.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Alex bowed his head respectfully to King Sayid.
Krystina ignored conventions and threw her arms around the king. “Thank you so much, Your Majesty.”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” Sayid returned her hug and smiled over her shoulder at Alex. “You have a fun night.”
“If you insist.” Alex coughed lightly and felt his cheeks warm. The king winked at him and playfully shoved Krystina in his direction.
When they’d left the bright office and were alone in dimly lit hallway, Alex swept Krystina into his arms and kissed her as he walked toward the grand staircase that would lead upstairs to their room.
“Hi, Mom.” Krystina waved into the video chat screen. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
“Oh good, did you break up with that vile young man who spent ten minutes in our driveway shoving his tongue down your throat?”
Alex clasped his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing out loud and embarrassing Krystina even more than she probably was.
“Um… not exactly,” Krystina said, also holding back a full-out laughing fit. “Is Daddy right there? You should probably both meet him.”
“Him?” Her dad pushed himself into the viewing field. “Did you get some smarts into that head of yours and dump that lying show-off?”
“Mom, dad, this is His Majesty, King Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Krystina said. “He wanted to introduce himself before he officiates at our wedding tonight.”
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Clark,” the king said, waving into the camera on the computer. “How are you this evening?”
“It’s noon.” Lincoln Clark glanced at his watch.
“Ah, yes, time conversion.” Sayid tapped his forehead. “Good afternoon, then.”
“Who did you say you are?” Tammy Clark asked, bringing her face closer to the computer screen as if she could see him better.
“I am the king of Madain Saleh. Your daughter and her betrothed are here visiting with my great-grandson, His Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid.”
Mark moved closer to the king and waved into the camera. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Still wearing his full crown, he looked the epitome of a prince. “I believe you’ve met my advisor, Alexander.” Mark pulled Alex into the view.
“Hello again, Mr. and Mrs. Clark.” Alex relished in their gaping mouths. “As I mentioned the other day, I would like to marry your daughter, and the king has graciously offered his assistance to act as officiator in that union.”
“You’re getting married?” Tammy asked. “When?”
“Right now,” Alex said. “That’s why we called. We wanted to give you the opportunity to be here to watch us exchange our vows.”
“You can’t be serious,” Lincoln said. “You haven’t even come to ask my permission.”
“Well, I did come to meet you and you repeatedly offended and belittled me. But regardless, I would never negate Krystina’s freedom to choose. Rather than ask you for your permission, I have asked her if she would like to marry me. I respect you as my bride’s father and mother and wanted to give you the chance to watch us join our lives together.”
“And look at this ring, Momma.” Krystina tucked herself in front of Alex to hold the ring up to the little camera. Alex didn’t miss the chance to wrap his arms around her while she was talking to her mom. “Isn’t this incredible? It’s an opal. A really rare—and really old—opal, that belonged to Alex’s grandmother.”
“That is a very pretty ring, darling,” Tammy said, her face up against the screen again.
“Why didn’t he buy you a diamond?” Lincoln asked. “Is he too much of a cheapskate to buy you a diamond?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Alex answered. “We didn’t have a jewelry store on the private jet, nor here at the palace. We could wait to get married until we can find a jewelry store, if you’d like, my love.” Alex leaned his head around Krystina to look her in the eye.
“Heck no, I am not waiting another night to be in your arms,” Krystina said playfully, leaning forward to give Alex a quick kiss.
“Speaking of nights,” Mark interrupted, holding Aaron in his arms. “This little prince needs to be in his bed soon. Can we get on with this wedding?” As if to prove a point, Aaron rubbed a fist across his eye and laid his head on his daddy’s shoulder.
“Right away, Your Highness,” Alex said then turned back to the Clark’s. “Would you like to stay connected by video chat in order to watch us exchange vows?”
“Hmpf.” Lincoln crossed his arms and creased his brow.
“Of course, we do.” Tammy elbowed her husband. “All of her life I’ve dreamed of seeing our daughter get married.”
“Yay! I’m glad you’ll watch, Momma.” Krystina turned to the king. “Okay, where do you want us to stand?”
“Well, let’s stand right here where your parents can see,” Sayid said, then looked into the camera and called out, “Can you see us okay?”
“We can see you!” Tammy called back, much louder than she needed to.
“Gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever officiated at a wedding that didn’t also involve a coronation.” Sayid rubbed his chin. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”
“Well, you said you drew up an official contract, right?” Alex nodded. “And that we needed witnesses.”
“I believe I am qualified for that job.” Mark raised his hand.
“Myself as well.” Prince Eli snuck into the room, his wife in tow, both still wearing their crowns.
In addition to the bride and groom, there were now four princes, two princesses, and a king in the small space that usually held King Sayid’s executive secretary and her filing cabinets. The queen had been too tired to join them after the meal.
“If we try to cram too many more people in here, we’re going to need to move the computer to a larger room,” Sayid joked.
“That or I’m going to have a panic attack,” Hazel said, bouncing a sleepy and fussy Prince Owen in her arms. “Let’s get this ceremony completed so I can put my babies to bed.”
“Okay, we have a contract, and two witnesses,” Sayid said, turning to Alex and Krystina. “Did you want to say a few words to each other? Is that how an American wedding is usually done?”
“Yes, that’s how it’s done.” Alex turned to Krystina with a grin. “Did you prepare any words to say?”
“No…” She giggled playfully. “Did you?”
“No, I’ve never done this before,” Alex said. “Shall we just say what’s in our hearts?”
“Sounds good to me,” Krystina said. “You go first.”
“Okay”—Alex cleared his throat— “I think this afternoon we said the most important things we needed to say to one another when we were alone in the solarium. And I think we have tonight, and every day and night for the rest of our lives, to continue to tell one another all the important things.
“Right now, I just want to promise you, and our family and friends, that I will love and cherish you for as long as I’m alive. I will do my best to protect you, and treasure you for the lady you are, and honor you, and support you, and help you live your dreams. I look forward to walking by your side as we embrace whatever life throws our way.
“I, Alex Cohen-Stephenson, do hereby commit my life to you, Krystina Clark, as your husband, to have and to hold for as long as we both shall live.” Alex winked at Krystina. “Your turn.”
“Everything you just said, times two.” She laughed and several others in the room joined her, including Alex. “I’m kidding. No, seriously, you were right earlier today when you said this was happening really fast. But I want to tell you about the first time I saw you.”
“Am I gonna blush?” Alex asked.
“Maybe,” she said. “But I’m going to tell you the story anyway…”