With the top down on his sporty little Mercedes Cabriolet, Jacob relished the wind in his hair, cooling him from the desert heat as he left the mountainous region into the Harran plain. He was home. Although he’d never seen Paddan Aram other than in photos, his spirit recognized this as where he would find settlement and peace.
“Thank you, God,” he whispered a heartfelt prayer. “Whatever’s waiting for me here—a job, a home, a wife—I trust you to show me the way.”
Google Maps chirped through the GPS system in his car, informing him that in two miles, he needed to turn left onto the Sanliurfa Harran Yolu. Jacob chuckled, wondering if God had inspired the brilliant minds who created his navigational system.
“God inspires everything,” Jacob told the open air of his convertible. He’d been driving too many hours if he was talking to himself. Less than an hour to go and he would arrive at his uncle’s resort.
As luck would have it, when Jacob’s father had begun inquiring around the family to find possible housing, they found that his mother’s cousin, Laban, owned a large hot springs resort in the Harran plain not far from Jacob’s new office. The all-inclusive 400-bed resort also had fifty furnished apartments. With little effort, Jacob had arranged for his housing needs without having to search the internet or shop for kitchen utensils.
He switched on his turn signal even though there were no cars in sight. Habit from growing up in the largest city in southern Israel. This was far from Be’er Sheva and far from everything else.
Except, apparently, on the side of the road, a broken-down car with a beautiful brunette leaning against it. She was without a head covering to protect her from the intolerable heat of the desert. No woman should be out here alone. She could get kidnapped or worse. Jacob slowed his car as he approached the stranded young lady. With the top down on his convertible, they could see and talk to one another without him getting out and scaring her.
She looked to be in her early twenties, dressed fashionably in a lightweight wraparound skirt and platform sandals, with a billowing top that tastefully concealed her shoulders and arms in satiny linen. She stood beside her smoking car, with her arms folded and a scowl. “Let me guess, you think I need help.” Her tone challenged him not to treat her like a damsel in distress, which she so obviously was.
“No, actually, I was going to ask if you can give me directions to the Karaali Kaplıcaları Resort and Hot Springs,” Jacob asked playfully.
“Did my father send you?” She rolled her eyes. “Typical. I thought he had removed that stupid tracking device from my cell phone when I turned twenty-one.”
Jacob wasn’t even sure how to respond to that as she pulled the door handle on the passenger side of his convertible. What the heck was she doing? He didn’t know if he should worry that she was going to rob him or be flattered that a pretty girl was trying to climb in his car.
“Are you going to unlock the door for me, or what?”
“Uh… sure.” He quickly disengaged the lock and tried not to stare as the brunette’s skirt opened to reveal her thigh as she slid into the leather passenger seat. She didn’t even bother covering up for modesty, and Jacob fought the urge to request she do so. Just because he had committed his life to God and was waiting for divine direction before marrying and becoming physically involved with a woman didn’t mean that everyone in the world shared his conservative values.
“What’s your name?” she asked while clicking her seatbelt into place.
“Jacob. What’s yours?” He pulled away from the side of the road and shifted into second gear, loving the pickup in his little sports car.
“Which one do you think I am?” She turned to him with a smirk. “Most people can’t tell us apart.”
“Just take a guess.” She almost bounced in the seat with excitement.
“You want me to guess your name?” Jacob shifted into third and then smoothly into fourth, settling on a comfortable speed, not wanting to push the car in this heat.
“I mean, you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Right?”
“Right. Wait, what?” Jacob glanced over at the strange but beautiful woman. “What do I have a fifty-fifty chance of getting right?”
“My name, silly.” She pushed his shoulder and laughed.
“Uh…” He gripped the steering wheel with both hands and stared straight ahead. “Can you at least give me a hint?”
“See, I knew you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. One of these days, someone’s going to figure out how to tell us apart from each other.”
“I am so confused.”
“That’s okay.” She settled into the seat with a smile and faced forward, finally adjusting her skirt so that it fully covered her knees. “You’re not alone.”
“That’s for sure,” he mumbled, wondering if he would ever get the sight of her elegant, long legs out of his thoughts. He tried so hard not to be tempted by women and, for the most part, had never faltered. But he hadn’t dated anyone either.
Jacob was waiting for God to provide him with a wife. Wait a minute… was this woman meant to be his wife? Had God placed a damsel in distress on the side of the road for him to swoop in and rescue? That was unlikely, as romanticized as the notion seemed.
“Wait, how did my father find me so quickly?” She turned to Jacob with a creased brow.
“I have no idea,” Jacob responded with honesty. “I’ve never met the man.”
“You work for him, but you’ve never met him?” She folded her arms across her chest.
“I was just hired a few weeks ago. I’ve never even seen my new office. The interview team met with me over Skype.”
“Interview team?” Now it was her turn to look confused. “My father uses Zoom.”
“Zoom, Skype, same difference.” Jacob shrugged. “Still a miracle technology just like the sustainable irrigation system that allows us to grow crops in this otherwise infertile valley.” Jacob gestured to the glorious fields lining their way as far as the eye could see.
“Who was with my father on the Zoom call?” Her voice was suspicious.
“Come to think of it, the interview team was three women,” Jacob mused. “Now I know for sure I haven’t met your father.”
“What did they look like?” The young lady was now pushed entirely against the passenger side door, a terrified flash in her eyes.
“Uh… one was an older woman with a British accent, one was a younger Chinese woman, maybe about my mom’s age. And the third was an American with short, dark hair.”
“Who are you?” she whispered.
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“Check.” Jacob moved his queen into position, knowing he wouldn’t hold the lead for long. His father was a prior grand master and didn’t get beat at chess very often. Still, Jacob never passed up the opportunity to play against the best. “I’ve prayed about this father, and I know Harran is where God wants me.”
“It’s a fourteen-hour drive, son.” Isaac moved a pawn to block Jacob’s queen. “Your mother would be devastated if you weren’t home for holidays.”
“I’m twenty-five years old, dad. I can drive fourteen hours easy.” Attending college right here in Jacob’s hometown of Be’er Sheva had been a blessing. The Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies was practically walking distance from his parents’ stately home. “Plus, I could always make it a two-day trip and stop to see grandfather in Bethel, or Uncle Bethuel in Nablus. I haven’t seen him in years.”
“You know, I think his son, Laban lives in the Paddan Aram area.” Isaac glanced up with an optimistic smile. “I’ll have to ask your mother if she has his phone number or address. I think he’s got some kids your age.”
“That would be nice.” Jacob took a nervous breath. “The region is so desolate. I was worried I wouldn’t have anyone to hang out with.”
“Of all the places in the world, why on earth would you want to move to Turkey?”
“Harran is practically on the Syrian border,” Jacob reasoned, as if that was any less bleak. “It’s only a four-hour drive to Dortyol and you know how I love the Mediterranean Sea. I could visit Cyprus. I’ve always wanted to go see Mount Olympos. Besides, this is a great job opportunity, dad. My master’s degree isn’t meant to be just a piece of paper on the wall.”
“I paid good money for that piece of paper on your wall.” Isaac scowled. As a wealthy landowner and businessman, his father never understood why Jacob wanted to earn a degree in Desert Studies with a concentration on Biotechnology of Drylands.
“The regional development project has revolutionized sustainable agriculture in that area and we’re finally able to irrigate the plains surrounding Harran to grow cotton and rice. It’s a blessing for that barren region. With my degree, I’m the perfect man for this job. They need me.”
Isaac sat back and folded his arms across his chest, the game temporarily suspended as Jacob squirmed under his father’s critical observation.
There was one more point Jacob needed to make, and he didn’t want his dad to think this was the only reason he was moving up to Harran, but it was one very big reason. “Plus… I’m pretty sure I’m going to meet my wife there.”
“Your… wife? What makes you think that?” Isaac raised his eyebrows.
“Another dream,” Jacob mumbled, waiting for the scrutiny. He rarely mentioned his dreams because people looked at him like he was a kooky visionary.
“What kind of dream are you talking about, son? The kind where you wake up feeling like you need a cold shower? Or the kind where you wake up feeling like God’s trying to tell you something?” His father was one of the few people who actually believed Jacob when he said he received messages from God.
“I’m an adult, dad. What do you think?”
“I think… God must need you in Harran.” Finally. Acceptance from his father. Of all the successes in life, achieving acceptance from one’s father is the most treasured.
“Thanks Dad,” Jacob choked out through a sudden lump in his throat.
“One other thing…” Isaac sat forward again and reached for his king. “Checkmate.”
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“One more lap!” Ahira called out to his advisor, Shemaria.
“No, Your Highness, now!” Shemaria hollered back. “You need to be in the car in ten minutes and you still need a shower.”
Ahira didn’t even slow his stride while making the final turn around the track. “I can run the four hundred in forty-seven flat. Chill out. I’m doing one more lap.” He kept going but upped his pace to a sprint to appease his advisor.
Less than a minute later he sprinted straight into the bathroom and had the shower full blast in less than two. His all-natural body wash with essential oils acted as shampoo, deodorant soap, and body lotion all in one and before he could count to thirty, he was reasonably clean.
He slipped on a linen shirt over his still wet body, shook his head to let the droplets of water fly out of his hair, and pulled on a pair of linen bell bottoms, commando since underwear was only necessary when running, and he was done with his workout for the day.
“You are not wearing that to the Tribute Festival,” Shemaria insisted. “Your black suit is hanging right here along with shined shoes and a necktie.”
“Oh, heck no,” Ahira said, slipping on his leather sandals. “I’m not sitting in a car for two hours in a monkey suit. Just get me there early enough to change in my hotel suite before my meeting with the king, or I can change in the car.”
“You’d take your clothes off in the car? With Eliab and his advisor… and his sister?” Shemaria hastily grabbed the garment bag containing Ahira’s suit and hurried after him.
Ahira managed to climb into the passenger seat of Shemaria’s SUV nine minutes and forty-five seconds after being told they needed to leave in ten minutes. “Fifteen seconds to spare,” he said proudly as Shemaria clamored to slip into the driver’s seat.
“I will not allow you to get naked in front of your best friend’s sister,” Shemaria said, clicking his seatbelt into place.
“All bodies are beautiful in God’s eyes, and our body contains our spirit, so our skin shines with life,” Ahira said. “We all have a body. All bodies look alike. She has no reason to be embarrassed about my body any more than I have reason to be embarrassed of hers.”
“I hope the hotel gift shop sells condoms or we’re in trouble,” Shemaria muttered.
“My body and her body will never join as one until we have been joined in holy matrimony,” Ahira said. “So, steady your breathing and calm your heart. All will be well, my friend.”
“Your Highness, I am not your friend. I am your advisor,” Shemaria said. “And I’m advising you to not take your clothes off in front of Deborah. Am I making myself clear?”
“As clear as the sparkling droplets of water that cleansed my beautiful body not seven minutes ago.”
“What commandment did I break that God is punishing me with the assignment of following around the least reverent prince in all of Israel?”
“Relax, it could be worse.” Ahira fought the humor pulling at the corners of his mouth. “If God really wanted to punish you, he would have assigned you to Gil.”
“I shudder.” Shemaria physically shook his body for emphasis and they both laughed. Prince Pagiel of the House of Asher was a total stoner and arrived at any required event with bloodshot eyes and smelling of weed. How he functioned in society was beyond Ahira’s understanding.
Ahira would never partake of any substance that could possibly inhibit his body from experiencing the fullness of God’s Spirit. Deep breathing while inhaling the minerals surrounding him in the air and soil was all the high he would ever need.
That, and he very much looked forward to the day when he and Deborah could be joined in all ways physically possible. Shemaria hit that nail square on the head. Not that Ahira would ever admit to the truth. Not that Deborah’s older brother would ever allow them to marry.
Eliab, Prince of Zebulon, had been Ahira’s best friend since they were babies even though they lived thirty minutes apart and represented separate territories.
When Eliab’s little sister developed into the voluptuous woman she was now, Eliab stopped inviting her to join them on adventures. His refusal had barely interrupted their courtship. Ahira and Deborah just had to get creative at hiding their attraction for each other.
At nineteen, Deborah was only two years younger than Ahira and had been agreeable to the notion of becoming the Princess of Naphtali since her seventh birthday party when she realized Ahira was a prince. Heck, she’d already been the Princess of Zebulon since she was born, so she wouldn’t be changing her lifestyle. She’d just be changing her tribe.
And she loved Ahira. And he loved her. And, yes, they’d seen each other without apparel more times than Ahira would ever admit to anyone, especially her brother or his advisor.
They loved to go skinny dipping in his private hot springs near his palatial home in Tiberius. Deborah had a best friend just down the street who covered for them all the time. Her brother never questioned why Deborah spent so much time with her bestie, Rebecca. Apparently, he didn’t realize Rebecca lived less than a quarter of a mile from Ahira.
Ahira didn’t even feel guilty about the time he spent with Deborah. Since they’d never had sex, he didn’t see anything wrong with the fun they had. As long as he continued to hear God’s Spirit guiding him, Ahira knew he was living according to God’s plan. Intercourse was reserved for marriage. Anything else was fair game. Or so he thought. He was pretty sure Deborah’s brother and parents wouldn’t agree, but whatever.
As Ahira contemplated his relationship with his future princess, Shemaria drove toward Nazareth. The last few miles created a flutter in Ahira’s stomach that disappeared the minute the SUV pulled up to the Zebulon’s compound and the front door opened revealing the love of his life and her older brother.
His habit was to run to Eliab’s arms and give him a much longer hug than normal friends would, then he would release Eliab and pull Deborah into his arms for a nice, long brotherly hug. During that hug he would take a dopamine hit of whatever essential oil she was diffusing through her silky skin. If they were turned far enough away from everyone else, he would kiss her neck or rub her back or whisper a little message.
Perhaps it was the excitement of heading to the festival that increased his level of awareness, or the knowledge that they’d be spending a week at the same hotel a few suites down the hall from one another, or just that they’d been apart for too many days. Whatever the reason, Ahira had to force himself not to take Deborah in his arms and kiss her until neither of them could see straight. His whisper was soft but insistent. “Let’s get married.”
“Okay,” she whispered back. Not even a hesitation. They knew they were getting married someday, so the declaration didn’t spring forth out of the blue sea.
They ended their stolen hug and Ahira spoke to both Deborah and her brother Eliab. “Dang, I missed you guys so much! How long has it been since we’ve gotten all three of us together?”
This was a running joke between him and Deborah. They’d seen each other last week but they couldn’t remember the last time all three of them had dinner or attended a church service or gone boating on the Sea of Galilee. So they tested Eliab’s memory to help them remember also.
“Was it our mom’s birthday party last month?” Eliab questioned his sister.
“That sounds about right.” Deborah nodded and smiled.
Moshe, Eliab’s advisor, interrupted their reminiscing. “Let’s talk about this on the road. We’re going to be late.”
“And we can’t be late,” Shemaria echoed Moshe. “The Prince of Naphtali decided running several thousand miles this afternoon was more important than getting dressed.”
“I’m dressed.” Ahira raised his arms flamboyantly as if showing off an extravagant wardrobe rather than displaying the simple all-natural linens he wore.
“You need to be wearing your suit and tie,” Shemaria said through clenched teeth. “My job is to get you to the Tribute Festival looking like a prince, and if I can’t even do that, they might fire me.”
“I told my advisor I’d be more than willing to change in the car.” Ahira blinked his eyelashes with fabricated innocence, leading Eliab right into the trap he’d set.
“In front of my sister?”
“It’s not like she hasn’t seen me naked before.” In response to Ahira’s statement, Eliab growled at his best friend. “What? We took baths together when we were two or three, right?” He didn’t mention they’d taken a shower together last week. That wouldn’t go over well.
“You’re not changing in front of my sister, Your Highness,” Eliab insisted.
“Well then, we’d better get to the hotel on time, Your Highness, so that I can make it up to my suite and change into that very uncomfortable suit hanging in a garment bag in the SUV.”
“Hop in, guys,” Moshe said, climbing into the passenger seat beside Shemaria, who would be driving all the way to Jerusalem.
“I get the third row!” Ahira always took the back so that Deborah didn’t have to. He would seem like a gentleman if he didn’t have ulterior motives. Whichever side of the middle seat Deborah sat in, Ahira could snake his arm around and hold her hand or touch her waist or play with her hair. As far as he knew, no one had caught on to their game.
In reality, they were playing a dangerous game and getting caught was inevitable. They’d play as long as they could though.
Before they’d even left the Zebulon’s driveway, Deborah blurted out, “This is my first festival. You guys have to tell me what to expect.” She was only nineteen and their father had decided she was too young last year.
“A lot of prayers,” Eliab grumbled.
“It’s amazing,” Ahira added, his tone completely opposite of that of his friend. “Every morning there’s a prayer meeting and we actually get to pray at the temple mount. A few years ago, that would have been unheard of. Now that our kingdom is at peace, anyone can pray on the temple mount. You can just feel the Spirit of God as soon as you step inside the Jaffa Gate.”
“I was under the impression that you feel the Spirit of God everywhere you go and anytime you want.” Shemaria’s brows creased and he glanced at Ahira through the rearview mirror.
“Doesn’t everyone?” Ahira wondered out loud with stars in his eyes. “We are all connected to the minerals in the earth and the oxygen in the air, and all living organisms.”
“You’re such a tree hugger, Your Highness,” Eliab said. “How are we even friends?”
“I’m pretty sure we were best friends even before we came to earth,” Ahira said, then his tone shifted, and his eyes drifted to Deborah. “We were destined to be together since the premortal existence.” Thankfully no one seemed to notice the change except Deborah, who immediately changed the subject as a distraction.
“Okay, so in addition to prayers, what else will we be doing?”
“Well, tonight there will be a lighting ceremony, and tomorrow there will be a tree planting ceremony. Each of the princes brings a branch from a tree in their tribal region and presents it to the Levites as a tribute. Then an almond tree is planted in recognition of the ancient prophet, Aaron’s rod springing forth shoots and blossoms even though the branch had been severed from the tree.”
“And then what?”
“A water drawing ceremony is on day three and that is accompanied by a parade. Everything we do is symbolic and based on a miracle or event that happened in ancient times. On day four we have a feast with lamb as the main dish. And then on the last day, we have a grand ball where everyone dresses like princes and princesses.”
“What if nobody dances with me?” Deborah pouted.
“Your brother and I will dance with you,” Ahira said, knowing she’d set him up. “Right, Eliab? We won’t let you sit out a single dance.”
“Uh, I hope to have a woman to dance with who is not related to me,” Eliab said. “I’m not getting any younger, you know. Gotta get married eventually, right?”
“Then I’ll dance with you myself,” Ahira said with conviction. “I’m not related to you.”
“Oh, thank you, Ahira,” she said with exaggerated appreciation. “I was afraid I wouldn’t know anyone.”
“I won’t let you out of my sight, I promise.” Ahira wanted to jump up and down and kiss Deborah but knew this wasn’t the time or place.
Deborah squeezed her brother’s arm with both hands and leaned against his shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re my brother. You have the best friends.”
“If you say so, little sister.”
“I do,” she said definitively.
Ahira couldn’t wait to hear Deborah say those words across an altar where she would pledge her love to him. And he would say the words right back. And mean them with all his heart.
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Abidan had resigned himself to the oppressive rules imposed upon him by his advisor long ago. Raja insisted he drive everywhere they travelled, for safety reasons, he said. Whatever.
Raja had just as much stress navigating the bustling streets of Ramallah as Abidan would. The difference was Raja white-knuckled the drive and Abidan clung to the grab bar above the passenger side door of the black SUV.
Leaving the city to make the one-hour journey to Jerusalem for the Tribute Festival would be a welcome change with a peaceful drive through the rocky wilderness. If they could ever get out of Ramallah.
His hometown and center of his family’s territory had grown in recent years to one of the largest and most diverse cities in the region. Abidan was honored to represent the tribe of Benjamin at the festival.
The Kingdom of Israel was finally at peace after three thousand years of conflicts. Abidan’s lineage traced directly back to Benjamin himself, a son of Jacob the prophet. As the oldest of the princes who would be attending the festival, Abidan knew everything there was to know about the twelve tribes of Israel.
At twenty-five, he should have been embarrassed that he had not yet found a woman smart enough to marry. Not that anyone at the festival would be worthy of his attention. The only person who had ever been kind to him was Nahshon, Prince of Judah.
Nahshon had mentored Abidan through the years and was the second oldest of the princes. He was also holding out finding a wife insisting that he would only marry a Levite. Good luck with that. Abidan snorted out loud just thinking of the challenge. His advisor glanced at him with a raised eyebrow.
“What’s that conniving smirk on your face?” Raja asked.
“I was just looking forward to seeing Nahshon again and wondered if he’d finally found himself a Levite woman to marry.”
Raja also snorted. “He’s going to be a bachelor forever if that’s what he wants.”
“Agreed,” Abidan said. “Who would ever want to marry a haughty Levite anyway.”
“Uh… you are literally going to this festival to pay tribute to the keepers of the temple,” Raja said. “You might want to change your attitude in the next hour.”
“I don’t care how the descendants of Levi have managed to hold onto that designation for thousands of years, but they will always be the enemy to me.”
“Whatever you say, Your Highness.” Raja didn’t sound like he believed a word Abidan said.
They finally merged onto Route 50 and Abidan was able to relax. The drive was literally downhill from Ramallah to Jerusalem.
Abidan was excited to check into the Waldorf Astoria again and wished he could move his entire household there. Nothing in Ramallah even came close to the luxury, not even his palace.
All guests of the Waldorf Astoria received royal treatment and Abidan found that refreshing. He wished he could collect that opulence and bring it home to the refugee camps in his territory. A sobering thought he pushed to the back of his mind as Raja slowed his approach into the metropolitan area of Jerusalem.
The Old City was a tourist attraction under normal conditions but during the time of the Tribute Festival, traffic was a nightmare. Their hotel was practically across the street from the Jaffa Gate and people swarmed the area. Abidan was shaking by the time they pulled up to the entrance and Raja handed off the keys to the valet.
Several members of the concierge approached their SUV including the hotel manager, who addressed Abidan with a bow of respect. “Your Highness, welcome to the Waldorf Astoria. We are honored to have you as our guest.”
“Naturally,” Abidan said, then reined himself in. No need to leave the gentleman with an impression of his snobbery. “We’re delighted to be here. Your accommodations are the finest in the kingdom.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” The hotel manager, whose nametag read Zaid, nodded politely. “We try our best.”
“And it shows, good sir. Where shall I find my suite?” Abidan glanced at the two members of the concierge, who had finished unloading his luggage.
“The Ambassador Suite has been reserved for you on the nineth floor,” Zaid said. “You are adjacent to King Jacob. I understand you are the eldest of the princes this year.”
Abidan chuckled and smiled at the man, elbowing him in jest. “Is that your way of politely noting that I have yet to choose a princess?”
“Gosh, Your Highness, I hadn’t even taken that into consideration.” Zaid winked conspiratorially. “Perhaps by the time you leave next week, your status will have changed?”
“I’ll have to report back to you, sir.” Abidan grinned.
“I look forward to a full account, Your Highness,” Zaid said. “For now, let’s get you settled in your suite. Our concierge will take you there.”
“Much obliged.” Abidan patted Zaid on the shoulder and turned to the concierge.
“Right this way, Your Highness.” The concierge led the way into the atrium, the grandeur of which rivaled even the Saudi king’s palace.
Marble flooring shined, grand staircases graced the sides with balconies on every level, an elegant clock tower acted as centerpiece, and natural light bathed the atrium with inviting warmth. Yes, Abidan wanted to move here permanently.
His attention was drawn to the staircase on his right where four men flanked an angel in white so elegant, she was nearly sparkling in the sunlight. Although her gown was modern, it hinted of antiquity and seemed to have been designed to hug her bodice. Her hair was upswept and tucked around a silver band that almost resembled a tiara as if she wanted to give off the impression of royalty. She sold it well.
Every man, and woman, in the atrium stopped what they were doing as she descended the last flight of stairs and someone nearby grumbled, “How many bodyguards does the prophet’s daughter need?”
“Four, apparently,” someone else answered.
“The prophet’s daughter?” Abidan whispered to his advisor. “She’s grown up in the past year.”
“That’s Mira?” Raja asked in awe. “She has… matured.”
Abidan’s feet moved as if on their own accord in Mira’s direction, but Raja stopped him.
“Now who’s crushing on a Levite?” Raja mumbled under his breath.
“I’m not crushing on her,” Abidan insisted. “I would simply like to pay my respects.”
“She’s out of your league, Your Highness,” Raja said.
“I am the Prince of Benjamin—” Abidan turned to his advisor. “There is no woman on this earth who is out of my league.”
“Yeah, well, that woman is now out of the atrium, and you’d look like a lovesick fool following her down the hallway,” Raja said. “In the time it took you to brag about your title, you lost the opportunity to introduce yourself to the Levite of your dreams.”
“I am not marrying a Levite,” Abidan declared with falsified confidence.
“Whatever you say, Your Highness.”
“Shut up, Raja,” Abidan mumbled. “Follow our concierge. I’m certain a fine bottle of Scotch is waiting for me in our suite, and I need a drink.”
“And a cold shower,” Raja mumbled back.
“What was that?” Abidan turned and glared at his advisor.
“Nothing, Your Highness. Just following our concierge, like you requested.” As Raja continued after the men with their luggage, Abidan turned one more time in the direction where the princess had left the atrium.
Daughter of the prophet, Abidan corrected himself. Mira is not a princess… yet. A tiny smile pulled at his lips as he turned and followed the concierge.
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“You need help, man.”
“You need to mind your own business and remember who’s in charge.” Gil wanted to fire Otto but knew his father would never allow it. Plus, he was too stoned to get off the floor so figured he might as well let his advisor boss him around like he always did.
“I’ll consider you in charge when you’re sober enough to be in charge,” Otto said, kicking Gil’s leg. “We have to leave in half an hour, and you’re not even showered or dressed. Do you want Ayelet to see you like this?”
“She’s seen me worse,” Gil said with an internal shrug. Physically moving his shoulders would be too much work. “Besides, she loves me no matter what.”
“Yeah, well, she’s not going to want to be seen with you at the festival if you’re strung out and filthy. Now, get in the shower. I’ll pick you out some clean clothes and somehow make you look like the prince that you supposedly are.”
“I’ve been a prince longer than you’ve been alive.” Gil forced himself off the floor and looked his advisor in the eye, sort of.
“By six months,” Otto said. “That hardly counts. And if you take maturity into consideration, I’m years older than you.”
Otto was right. At twenty-years-old, Gil acted like a seventeen-year-old stoner, and Otto acted like an adult with a real job and real responsibility. Gil stood in the center of his room watching Otto paw through his enormous closet trying to find something he felt was suitable for the festival.
The Festival of Tribute happened every July whether the princes wanted to drag themselves from the twelve territories of the kingdom or not. Considering that Gil had nothing in common with any of the other princes, and had already met the woman of his dreams, he had no desire to attend the banquets and tribute ceremonies and church services and parades and grand ball. Ugh.
If only Gil could just send a donation to the Levites for their exemplary service in the temple of the gospel he didn’t even believe in, he’d be happy. But no, the kingdom forced him to physically come to the temple and offer his tribute like a servant instead of a prince.
Not willing to let his advisor choose his attire for the two-hour journey, Gil strode over and pushed Otto gently out of the way, choosing his black jeans, black tunic, and black trench coat. Then he reached into a drawer and grabbed a pair of boxers and a pair of socks and headed for the bathroom.
“You’re seriously going to wear all black?” Otto called after him.
“Do you see any other colors in my closet?” Gil called back to him, then firmly closed the door to his bathroom.
Standing at the bathroom vanity Gil regarded his reflection. Otto was right; he looked like crap. His blue eyes were blood shot. His dirty blond hair looked more dirty than blond, and his ponytail holder was missing leaving strings of uncombed snarls. Time to clean up and act like a prince.
“Greetings, I am Pagiel, Prince of Asher,” Gil said to the image in the mirror. “I’ve come to offer my tribute to the gods, excuse me, the one God who supposedly exists and I should be honored that he created me. Here’s my tribute oh-high-and-mighty temple protectors. Now let me go home to my palace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where I can paint abstracts and get high and dream of the day when Ayelet agrees to marry me so I will no longer be the only prince of Israel who’s still a virgin.”
Knowing he’d feel better once he’d allowed the steam of a shower to clean his pores and his lungs, Gil shucked out of his dirty clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor rather than walking four feet over to the hamper.
Hot water, steam, shampoo with natural essential oils, soap made with hemp oil, and a softened loofa sponge combined to wake him from his stupor, and Gil managed to look presentable by the time Ayelet arrived twenty minutes later. Other than his hair, which he knew she’d help him with.
“Where are you?” Ayelet called from the entrance to his suite. She didn’t wait to be invited in just pushed open the door to his bathroom, which he’d cracked to let out some steam and heat. She kicked his dirty clothes out of the way then reached into the drawer and took out his comb. “Sit down.”
“Nice to see you too, babe,” Gil said, his stomach fluttering when he took in the gorgeous blonde who had invaded his bathroom. Luckily, he was already dressed when she barged in. That or unluckily since he was dying to marry her and had been ever since he figured out what would finally happen on their wedding night. “Don’t I even get a kiss?”
“We’re late,” she said, pushing his shoulder down to force him into the chair at his vanity. “We can make out in the car on the way there if you really want to be wearing my lipstick by the time we get to Jerusalem.”
“I would be honored to wear your lipstick if it means I get to make out with you all the way to Jerusalem,” he said, looking up into her sparkling blue eyes. She glanced down at him and fought a tiny smile that pulled at the corners of her mouth.
“Fine, one tiny kiss and then I’ve got to comb your hair and tie it back so we can leave.”
Gil pulled Ayelet down onto his lap and kissed her way longer than anyone’s definition of one tiny kiss. When they finally pulled away, Gil mumbled, “I can’t wait to marry you.”
“You need to brush your teeth,” Ayelet said, totally breaking the vibe. “You taste like pot.”
“You like the taste of pot,” he teased her, knowing the only time she’d even come close to tasting pot was by kissing him. She was as straight as the white lace she wore to church on the sabbath. Ayelet had never touched alcohol or drugs and wouldn’t let Gil push their make out sessions past kissing. She tortured him.
“No, I don’t.” She pushed herself off his lap. “Now let me up so I can comb your hair.”
“I love it when you play with my hair.” Gil moaned softly as she took the stringy but clean locks in her hands and tugged lightly with a comb.
“I’m not playing with your hair to get you turned on, so don’t get any ideas,” she said. “I’m combing your hair to make you presentable in public, Your Highness.”
“How can you expect me to not get turned on when you talk dirty to me, princess?” His mumble was accompanied by soft growls from the back of his throat. “Let’s skip the festival and get married.”
“Shut up and hold still.” Ayelet smacked his head lightly with the comb. “Come to church with me and go to rehab then we’ll talk about getting married.”
“Sorry.” Gil sighed in mock dismay. “I can’t go to rehab. I’m expected at the Tribute Festival in a few hours. You’ll have to drag me there next week when we get home.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that.” She stopped combing and met his gaze firmly in the mirror. “You need help.”
Gil looked away, knowing she was right but also knowing he wasn’t ready to admit that out loud.
“And you can come to church with me tomorrow morning.” She resumed combing.
“That’s right,” Gil grumbled. Every morning of the festival a church service was offered at the temple, and everyone was expected to attend. He never had attended and didn’t intend to start tomorrow. But he didn’t say that to Ayelet. Let her think she could somehow reform him into the good boy she deserved. The good man she deserved. One of these days he’d pick himself up and become the man she deserved.
“There, you look handsome once more.”
Gil met her gaze in the mirror again and gave her a half smile. “Thanks for helping me.”
“I love you, Pagiel,” Ayelet said with a serious face. “I always have. And I always will.”
“That’s good, because I’m a complete idiot and you deserve better.”
“Actually, you’re quite intelligent and one of these days you’re going to get your head out of the cloud of smoke you live in and do something with your life.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Gil said without sincerity, then stood and pulled her into his arms. Before releasing her so that they could leave for the festival he whispered, “I love you too, Ayelet. Always have and always will.”
Click here to read the entire prequel to the Princes of Israel Series, First Prince of Israel, which is only available to my newsletter subscribers.