“Have you told your sister that we’re coming?” Natalie asked.
After two nights in the City staying in the luxury of his family’s penthouse, they were back on the road heading north into the Hudson Valley. They had sold the bars of gold, handled all affairs with the financial firm, and taken a high speed elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, a decision Ethan regretted immediately and had to sit on the floor for about twenty minutes to stop the dizziness before heading back down.
“Uh, hadn’t thought to do that.” Ethan reached into his pocket and handed Natalie his phone. “Her number is the third down in my contacts list. Put it on speaker phone so I can talk to her without taking my hands off the wheel.”
“Give me a minute and I’ll sync the Blue tooth to the motorhome.” After a few seconds, the car’s sound system blasted the ringing phone and suddenly his sister’s voice boomed through the speakers.
“Ethan! How are you?”
“Greetings, Your Highness,” Ethan said. “How’s my favorite little sister?”
“Again? Didn’t you just have a baby two years ago.”
“Ethan, that was two years ago.” Miranda giggled. “We’re allowed to have more babies.”
“Well, congratulations. Hey, you up for some company?”
“Sure, when are you coming for a visit?”
“In about two hours,” Ethan said. “We’re just leaving New York City.”
Miranda squealed. “Seriously? Two hours? Wait, who’s we?”
“I’m travelling with my fiancé. I want you to meet her.”
“Your fiancé?” Miranda squealed again.
“Your fiancé?” Natalie mouthed.
“Yeah, we’re on our way to Vegas.” Ethan winked over at Natalie and she shook her head with an amused grin. He whispered to her, “It’s the easiest explanation.”
“Whatever, you silly guy.”
“Is that her?” Miranda asked. “Hi! What’s your name?”
“Hi, Miranda, I’m Natalie.”
“I’m so excited to meet you! I want to hear all about you and how you guys met and where you’re from and when you’re getting married. I want to hear everything.”
“How about if you start by giving us your address and we’ll plug it into the GPS so we can come tell you in person?”
“Ooh, I’ll give you the address to the tree house and I’ll tell the rest of the family to meet us there,” Miranda said.
“The treehouse?” Ethan glanced at Natalie who also had creased brows.
“Yeah, that’s what we call Prince Marcos and Princess Hazel’s house,” Miranda said. “It was built on top of a waterfall. You’ll see. Just go there and I’ll get Hayden to call up his brothers and his parents, and Alex, and everyone.”
“We’ll have fun. I promise,” Miranda said. “I’m texting you the address now and then I’ll hang up so I can help Hayden call the family.”
“Okay, sis, see you in a few hours.”
She squealed again. “Yay, I’m so excited!” The line went dead.
“Treehouse?” Ethan said.
“Waterfall?” Natalie asked. They looked at each other with gaping jaws. “Well, this will be an adventure.”
“Bring it on,” Ethan said with resignation. “We did want to see a waterfall, right?”
“We sure did.” Natalie plugged the address into the GPS and the electronic voice came over the speakers.
“You are on the fastest route,” the voice said. “You should reach your destination in one hour, forty-six minutes.”
“Gentlemen, thank you for meeting with me at such short notice,” Ethan said. The men in the room nodded in assent but mostly remained quiet and alert, allowing their client, Prince Ethan Sayid of Madain Saleh to take the lead.
The executive suite of offices for his financial management team overlooked Manhattan and the firm was one of the most well-respected in the world. Ethan was comfortable with their ability to manage his money but still didn’t trust them entirely.
“To preface what I’m about to say, you need to be made aware that I have recently received a disappointing medical diagnosis and will be settling my affairs over the next few weeks.”
Murmurs around the table interrupted Ethan’s declaration, as he’d expected. Several people gasped or said, “I’m so sorry,” or “That’s terrible.” One said, “What can we do to help?”
There was always one willing to stray toward the topic everyone else had on their mind: how can I position myself in a way that benefits me?
This was exactly why he didn’t fully trust them, and why he had sought outside council to handle the final distribution of wealth and be the executor of the estate. But they didn’t know about that yet, and Ethan was determined to keep these gentlemen fully invested in the outcome. He would share just enough information about his plans to hold their interest and nothing more.
“I have been truly impressed with how you have served me, and how you served my father before me, and I want you each to be financially-rewarded for your hard work.”
Again, there were murmurs and recognition of their firm’s ability to act as masters of the universe. Ethan could just envision the posturing over the next few hours, should he allow such behavior.
“I have employed outside council to conduct the final distribution of my wealth and carry out my wishes as executor of my estate.” That was met with lowered brows and shifting in their seats. This he’d predicted as well.
“Who have you hired, Your Highness?” The feigned concern earned the man a pointed glance from Ethan complete with narrowed eyes and lowered brows.
“That is not your concern,” Ethan said firmly. “After careful research, I have found a group unaffiliated with this company or any of its associates. I intend to obtain a complete lack of conflict of interest. They have your names, and full access to my accounts should I step in front of a bus on my way out of this building. Any changes that are made to my accounts will be immediately disclosed to this third-party firm.”
These gentlemen needed to be aware that they were no longer in control of Ethan’s affairs.
“I have laid out a very specific plan that includes the exact same percentage to each of you as individuals and a separate percentage to the company as a whole. Should something happen to one of you between now and the time I die, your portion will be distributed to a charity I have already chosen. There is no incentive for any one of you to kill each other off.”
That earned nervous chuckles around the room and comments like, “We wouldn’t consider such a thing.” Yeah, right. Money changes people. The prospect of gain changes people as well.
“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know where things stand and that I have made arrangements for how my affairs will be handled,” Ethan told them. “If all goes well, each of the named beneficiaries will have zero knowledge of one another, nor will they realize they are receiving money from a deceased billionaire prince. Other than the six men in this room, and the executors, all anyone else will know is that they received an anonymous donation.”
He paused for a moment in case any of them wanted to contribute to the discussion, then nodded regally.
“That will be all, gentlemen. If you’ll excuse me, I plan to take a road trip and see as much of this beautiful country as I can before I’m too sick to enjoy the landscape. Again, thank you all for your service and good luck in your future endeavors.”
With that, Ethan walked from the room with no emotion and left New York City with no intention to return.
“Sparsely decorated, Your Highness.” Natalie stepped into the empty living room which contained one easy chair, a lamp, and a table.
“This home has but one purpose,” Ethan said, turning on lights as he moved through the living room into the kitchen. “As a storage facility for all of this.” He held out his arm in a grand gesture toward the large dining room filled with stacks of documents, a computer server, a safe, filing boxes, books and ledgers.
“Oh… my… gosh.” Natalie made her way over to the dining room table, glancing at files, opening and closing books, peeking into ledgers. “You’re going to leave this mess for me when you die?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” He cleared his throat. “But you’re welcome to destroy everything once we get all the money distributed. None of this has any real value.”
“You’re worth over a billion dollars, Ethan.” She raised her eyebrows. “I’ve seen your portfolio, remember?”
“Okay, so, I’m worth over a billion, but this junk isn’t.” He picked up a stack of journals. “Other than this. Don’t destroy this.” He handed her the stack of books.
“What is it?” She sat down on a chair, resting the journals on her lap. Opening the top flap, she read aloud. “Complete Sayid family history as compiled by Prince Ethan Sayid. You wrote this?” Her voice held awe and wonderment.
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t sure if anyone else in my family had written down the old stories my great-great-grandfather used to tell me when I sat at his bedside growing up… so, I wrote them.”
“This is fascinating…” After a few moments of reading she looked up. “Can we bring these with us? On our trip? Now this is worth reading. Forget romance novels.”
“Hey, we all need a little romance in our life, right? Don’t discount the romance novels.” Ethan scratched the back of his neck and scuffed the toe of his shoe along the wooden floorboard.
“We can make our own romance,” she said absentmindedly. “This is gold.”
“You really think so?” he cleared his throat.
“You’re a very good writer, Ethan.” Natalie stood, cradling the treasure in her arms. “Thank you for sharing this with me.” She reached up and kissed Ethan on his cheek.
He felt that cliché feeling of never wanting to wash that cheek for the rest of his life and he stood there a minute, trying to catch his breath.
“What’s in the safe?” she asked, not setting down her newfound stories.
“That really is gold,” Ethan said. “Ya know, actual bars of gold. The combination to the lock is in the stacks of information I gave you.” He turned the dial back and forth a few times and opened the safe to reveal stacks of gold bars.
“Oh my gosh, Ethan, how much is that worth?” Her jaw dropped open.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “A few hundred thousand, maybe half a million? Sorry I didn’t take the time to liquidate that yet. We can work on that when we get home. You know what? Never mind. Let’s just bring this with us. The best place to liquidate gold is in New York City. I’ll get ahold of my financial advisor and see if he can make the arrangements.” Ethan grabbed a canvas bag and began filling it with gold bars.
“You’re going to bring half a million dollars’ worth of gold in our motorhome?” She took a step back, clutching the books to her chest. Lucky books. He turned back to his task.
“Who would ever look for gold bars in a motorhome anyway?” He tried to lift the canvas bag and realized it was too heavy, so he grabbed another bag and took half the bars out of one and loaded them into the other. “It will only take us about two days to get to New York City, right?”
“Yeah, about two days,” she squeaked.
“Dude, you look like you’re going to pass out. Relax. It’s just a few gold bars.” Ethan stood and held one bag in each hand, testing to make sure they were evenly distributed.
“I’ve never seen this much money in my life.” She shook her head.
“Might want to get used to being around this much money if you’re going to marry a billionaire prince.” He leaned forward to kiss Natalie on the cheek, causing her to lose train of thought just like she’d done to him.
“Very funny, Your Highness.” She chuckled nervously.
“Come on, I’ll show you the rest of my stuff and we can get back on the road. The penthouse in New York City is calling.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like our first destination to be my home in Omaha.” Ethan glanced to the side, keeping his eyes mostly on the highway. “I know I just left there this morning, but in a few days you will officially be my power of attorney, and if I never come back here, ya know, for whatever reason, you need to know where everything is.”
“Do you really think it could happen that soon?”
“I have no idea, Natalie. You saw me the other night. I went from happily eating pizza with your family to passed out for fourteen hours.” He used his turn signal to merge to the other lane. “One of these days you may find me back there not breathing. How frightened are you about that? Guess we probably should have discussed this before we left. Sorry.”
“I’m not,” she said. “Sorry, or worried, or frightened, or anything.”
“Really?” He found her confidence strangely comforting.
“You’ve been upfront about your condition. We’re not sticking our heads in the sand, pretending you’re not going to die. We’re not tip-toeing around the subject. We’re confronting this head-on, talking about this like we’re planning your estate. Which we are.”
“So, show me everything at your house, give me a key, tell me what real estate agent you want me to list with—I’m sure you’ve chosen one already. You’ve chosen everything else—and then we’ll get back on the road and head east.”
Ethan chuckled. “You know me too well already, my dear.”
“My dear?” Natalie laughed. “Did you really just call me that?”
“Did I?” Ethan gasped and wondered how she’d react to his slip. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Ethan. Seriously, we’re going to be spending the next several weeks with each other. You can call me whatever you want. Just don’t call me late for dinner.”
“Or chocolate ice cream and binge-watching old sitcoms.”
“Exactly.” She pushed his shoulder. “See, you know me too well already too… my dear.”
“Ya know, maybe we should just take your parents’ advice and get married. That would take all the pressure off the whole situation.”
“Very funny, Your Highness.” Natalie sat back and propped her feet up on the dashboard then slid a paperback book from the console. “I’ll take that into consideration.”
“You gonna read to me?” Ethan chuckled, trying to see the cover of her book without taking his eyes off the road.
“Do you want me to read to you?” She lowered her sunglasses to look at him with a mock-serious expression and held up the paperback book. “It’s a romance novel. This is the only romance I’m gonna get unless I agree to marry you.”
“Sounds good. Broaden my horizon. I’ve never read a romance novel,” he said. “Just think, you reading this book to me could be the only romance I get for the rest of my life.”
“You are indeed obsessed with your own mortality, aren’t you?” Natalie cleared her throat and held open the book with exaggerated intensity. “Once upon a time there was a dying prince who fell in love with his attorney.”
“Ooh, I’m gonna like this story,” Ethan said with a straight face. “I can totally relate to the characters.”
Natalie snickered and continued. “He loved her so much he rode off into the sunset—uh, well, sunrise, they’re heading east—and took her to see his palace in Omaha, and then to a penthouse in New York City, and then to see a princess.”
“Not just any princess,” Ethan interrupted. “The Princess Miranda, who’s also married to a real prince.”
“Just like the attorney is going to be someday.” Natalie snickered and continued. “Then they will sit together on a grand island and sip sparkling lemonade on the veranda.”
“Don’t forget the waterfall,” Ethan said.
“Oh yes, the Niagara Falls. Would you like to see the Canadian side or the United States side?”
“You mean him? The hypothetical prince in your story? Would he like to see the Canadian side or the United States side?”
“Yes, yes, the hypothetical prince. Which would he like to see?”
“What’s the difference between them?” Ethan creased his brow.
“For the Canadian side they have to use their passports, and for the United States side they merely need to park their motorhome.”
“Ooh… no passports.” Ethan cringed in mock horror. “The prince doesn’t like to pull out his diplomatic papers and draw attention to himself.”
“Good point. Okay, United States side it is. Moving on. Literally. After the prince took the attorney to see the pretty waterfall, they drove all the way to the Grand Canyon where he held her tight while they looked over the railing, so she didn’t fall.”
“Is she afraid of heights?” He creased his brow.
“Okay, the prince in the story holds the attorney tightly so she’ll feel safe and secure in his arms.”
“This is turning into a very romantic story,” Natalie said.
“You did promise me a romance.”
“True.” She turned a page with exaggeration. “After the prince held her safely in his arms while looking down over the Grand Canyon, he drove her to Vegas to see the lights on the strip and took her to see a show with dancing girls.”
“And they found a wedding chapel where Elvis joined them as husband and wife.”
“Hey, I thought the attorney loved the prince?”
“Yes, but she hates Elvis.”
“Ah, good to know.” Ethan winked at her. “I’ll be sure to remove all Elvis songs from my playlist.”
“And they lived happily ever after.” Natalie closed her novel and nodded her head once to conclude her story.
“Until death do they part,” Ethan added with irony.
“Thanks for ruining the ending of my story.” Natalie pushed his shoulder so hard he fought to stay in his lane, and they both laughed. “My story had a happy ending.”
“Yeah, well, mine doesn’t.” Ethan sighed as he turned on his signal to exit the highway for the road that would lead them to his tiny palace in a middle-class neighborhood near Omaha.
“Sleeping arrangements…” Ethan stood in the living area of the luxury motorhome, a travel bag slung over his shoulder. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I have,” Natalie said from behind him, shoving him all the way in the door so she could join him. “You get the back bedroom, one, because you’re sick and will need to be extra comfortable, two, you’ll probably go to bed much earlier than me and I don’t want my late night television habit to keep you up, and three, I’m smaller and can fit in the smaller bunk.”
“I can’t argue with any of your reasoning,” Ethan said, turning down the hall past the kitchenette, past the bathroom, and into a larger bedroom than he thought would fit in a motorhome. Not that he’d ever stayed in a motorhome before, but he was impressed. He turned in a full circle, taking it all in. “Natalie, this is beautiful.”
“You sound surprised.” Her voice was soft, but she quickly shifted from endearing compassion to flirty salesperson, telling him all the exciting things he could expect from their rolling home away from home. “This is the elite Esteem 29V Class C Motorhome, complete with leather seating, stainless steel kitchen appliances, a queen-sized bed, and full shower. Roomy and comfortable, you and your family will travel the country wrapped in luxury.”
“Well, considering you are my family for the next few weeks,” Ethan said, just as playfully, “As long as you are happy, I’m happy.”
“I’m happy,” Natalie said, her voice soft again.
Ethan was captivated by her sparkling green eyes and momentarily forgot what he had planned to say. They stood there awkwardly for a moment and then he remembered where he was and the importance of maintaining a professional relationship. He cleared his throat and pulled his focus away. “Well, we’ll see if you’re still happy after spending a few weeks with a spoiled prince who’s used to being waited on hand and foot, has a strange obsession with his own mortality, and sometimes snores.”
“I’ve slept down the hall from my dad my whole life.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her chin defiantly. “I think I can handle a little snoring.”
As if on cue, her father, Miles opened the flimsy outer door to the motorhome and stepped inside. “What do you think, Ethan? Does she meet your approval?”
“It’s gonna be tough, Mr. Dolan.” Ethan rubbed his chin playfully. “She’s already getting a little feisty and we haven’t even left yet.” Ethan knew Miles was referring to the motorhome, but he couldn’t help poking fun at his daughter.
“You jerk.” Natalie pushed his shoulder playfully. “He was talking about the motorhome.”
“Oh! The motorhome!” Ethan winked at Miles. “Yes, it’s very nice. The finest motorhome I’ve ever stood in.”
“Is this the only motorhome you’ve ever stood in?” Natalie looked at him skeptically.
“Yes, ma’am, it is.” Ethan nodded.
“I have a prediction to make.” Miles cocked an eyebrow and had a thoughtful, suspicious demeanor. “You two are going to fall in love by the time you’re done with this trip.”
They both guffawed like they’d done the other day at lunch and shook their heads.
“I highly doubt that,” Natalie mumbled.
“I’m not exactly in a good position to fall in love right now,” Ethan said, taking a deep breath. “Besides, do you really want your daughter falling in love with a man who’s going to die before the honeymoon’s over?”
They were all quiet for a moment. “I didn’t say I want you to fall in love." Miles creased his brow. "I just predict you’re going to.”
“Sir, I’ll do my best not to let that happen.” Ethan felt his throat tighten. “If I have to I’ll eat chili every night or something and stink up this motorhome to the point that she’ll come running home screaming that she wished she’d never met His Highness, Prince Ethan Sayid of Madain Saleh.”
That broke the tension as all three of them laughed. Natalie even snorted from holding in a laugh, then cocked her head to the side. “Is that your full title?”
“Yeah.” Ethan cleared his throat.
“That’s pretty cool,” she said, sounding impressed.
Ethan turned to Miles. “So, were you going to teach us how to handle this beautiful vehicle?”
“Yes, of course.” Miles snapped out of his inner contemplation and walked around the motorhome showing Ethan and Natalie all the ins and outs of the water system controls and how to maneuver the pop-outs and awnings, and the gears and gadgets.
They spent most of the morning getting acquainted with the vehicle and packing and organizing until Bonnie called them in for a nice, hearty lunch of ham sandwiches with lettuce and tomato on toasted bread.
After lunch they said lots of goodbyes, hugs, and a few tears, and then Ethan climbed into the driver’s seat with Natalie beside him.
“You sure you’re up for this?” Ethan asked with a grin before putting the truck in gear.
“I’m sure… Your Highness.” She bit her lower lip with a teasing grin.
“Very funny,” he said, shifting out of park and pulling away from the curb.
“I thought so.” Natalie threw her head back and laughed, then rolled her window down and called out the side. “Bye mom and dad! Don’t wait up!”
“Drive safely!” Miles said.
“Have fun in Vegas!” Bonnie called out. Natalie giggled as she pushed the button to close the window.
“She was just kidding,” Natalie said.
“Of course, I knew that.” Ethan gulped as they increased speed to leave town. Vegas. He tried to hide a smile.
Ethan rolled over and forced his eyes to acknowledge the warm sunlight filtering through the thick, lace curtains. He wasn’t disoriented enough to forget where he was and who he was with, although the previous day felt somewhat like a dream. He sat up and looked around.
An open door that he thought was a closet turned out to be an attached bathroom and he made a beeline for the facilities, chastising himself for falling asleep after drinking two glasses of soda along with the pizza and salad. Another thoughtful item in the guest bathroom was a little basket with pocket sized toiletries including brand new toothbrushes, still in their packaging. Grateful to his thoughtful hosts, he opened one and brushed the morning breath away before wandering out to see if he was alone in this grand house where he felt more at home than in his own palace.
He heard a soft radio somewhere back near the kitchen where Bonnie hummed along to country music station. Ethan didn’t want to intrude but the door to a sunroom was open and Bonnie had an easel set up with oil paints and a landscape taking shape on a large canvas. He knocked on the wooden frame and cleared his throat. “Knock, knock, mind if I interrupt your work?”
“Oh, good morning, Ethan.” Bonnie turned and smiled, then set down her paint brush and reached for the dial on the radio. “Did you sleep well?”
“Thank you, yes. Sorry if I overstayed my welcome. I don’t know what came over me.” He chuckled and thrust his hands in his pockets, sensing she didn’t believe his lie any more than he did. He was dying of cancer. Fatigue was to be expected.
“Nonsense, all you did was fall asleep instead of getting into your car and driving home. Either way you were gone for the night.”
“True. Hadn’t thought of it that way.” He hitched his thumb behind him. “I’m gonna take off and head back to Omaha first thing this morning. It is still morning, right?” He looked out the wall of windows that made up the whole back end of the room, gaging the angle of the sun.
“Barely, but yes.” She chuckled. “Let me grab you a water bottle and protein bar for the road. We had breakfast hours ago and it’s not quite time for lunch.”
“That would be great, thanks.” He followed Bonnie to the kitchen, and she reached into the refrigerator as he pawed through a little basket of snack bars on the island. He chose a granola bar with chunks of dried fruit and a label that promised to curb his hunger until lunchtime. Just what he needed. “Are Miles and Natalie next door? I’ll poke my head in and make sure there’s nothing else they need from me before I head out.”
“Yes, they should be in their office.” Bonnie handed Ethan a cold water bottle and he strode down the hallway to the front room.
Pushing open the screen door he glanced toward the porch swing that had been his demise the previous evening and chuckled. “Thank you again for your hospitality. I’m sure I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Anytime. Drive safely.”
Ethan bounded down the porch stairs with a spring in his step and realized his illness was easy to forget when in such a peaceful environment. He glanced up at the tunnel of trees over the sidewalk between the Dolan’s home and the little house next door that had been converted to the Law Offices of Dolan & Dolan. He pushed open the door and the hanging bell chimed.
“Hello, sleepyhead.” Natalie’s face lit up when she saw him, and Miles removed his reading glasses and stood from his desk.
“How are you feeling this morning, Ethan?” Miles truly sounded concerned.
“Actually, I feel really good. I think I must have needed a good night’s sleep.” Ethan shuffled his foot, poking his toe into a swirl on the pattern of the industrial carpet that covered the floor. “Plus, I think the work you’re doing for me has taken a load off my shoulders, if you know what I mean.”
“Planning for your future naturally brings a feeling of security,” Miles said. Ethan wondered how many times in his life Miles had said those exact words to his clients. He was honored to be one of them.
“Is there anything else you need from me before I take off?” Ethan asked, laying his hand on the stack of paperwork he’d left on the corner of Natalie’s desk. “I can come back in a couple of days and bring you whatever else you need.”
“I need you to come back and take me to New York City,” Natalie said, a gleam in her eye. She held up her fingers to make air quotes. “This ‘work’ vacation is going to be the highlight of my adult life.”
Ethan chuckled, suspecting this trip would be the highlight of his adult life as well, what little he had left. “You’re the one I dumped my mess on. You tell me when you’re ready to leave and I’ll be ready to go. I’ll pack this afternoon.”
“Lucky for Natalie, her father is an attorney,” Miles said with a teasing tone. “I’m going to make this case my priority while you two head out in the great unknown and we’ll converse using modern technology as you travel.”
“You’re sure you don’t mind us using your motorhome?”
“I’ve already called my mother and told her to clean that baby up and stock the fridge and fill the gas tank.” Miles stuck his chest out with pride. “They’re too old to be taking cross country trips anyway. In a way, it’s good to get that monstrosity out of the pole barn and drive it a couple times a year.”
“Please let them know I’ll reimburse them for the cost of gas and everything,” Ethan said, then pulled out his wallet. “On second thought, here, just give them a couple hundred dollars now. I’ll bring more cash to cover the rest. I know those things cost a fortune to fill with gasoline.” He handed Miles his last hundred plus two fifties, leaving himself with only a few twenties after handing over four hundred the day before. He was heading home. There was no reason to need cash between here and Omaha.
“Thank you, I’m sure they’ll appreciate that.” Miles nodded, taking his money.
“Okay, then, I’m going home to get ready for our adventure.”
“I’ll start packing tonight,” Natalie said.
“Shall we maybe plan on leaving the day after tomorrow?” Ethan raised his eyebrows, glancing nervously between Miles and Natalie, still incredulous that Miles was resigned to watch his daughter drive away with a strange man for an indefinite amount of time. “That will give me all day tomorrow to get some last-minute errands run and wrap up a few things.”
“Sounds good to me.” Natalie had a full out grin on her face and was almost bouncing on her toes. Ethan decided he’d better leave before he did something stupid like take her in his arms and swing her around in a circle with excitement.
Before he left, Ethan turned back and grinned. “Hey, Miles… would you mind watching over my Lincoln for me while we’re gone? You know, take her out for a spin every couple of days, keep her gassed up and happy?”
“I might be able to fit that into my schedule.” Miles’ grin was almost as wide as Natalie’s and Ethan clicked his key fob as he strode over to his car. It really was a pretty car.
Ethan climbed in and purred the engine to life, pulling away from the Dolan’s home with a smile on his face.
“I’d like to buy a couple of pizzas before I head home,” Ethan said later that afternoon. “Do you think Mrs. Dolan would mind if I buy everyone dinner this evening?”
Miles looked up from his typing and Natalie looked up from hers. Ethan felt a little useless now that his part of the work was mostly complete. He’d been scrolling through business articles on his smart phone for the past twenty minutes while the two attorneys worked together to form the revocable living trust they’d use as a catch-all for his estate.
“I think Bonnie would love to have a night off from cooking,” Miles said. “Why don’t you walk next door and tell her your plans and she’ll help you find the phone number for the pizzeria downtown.”
“Do I look that bored?” Ethan chuckled and stood to stretch his legs.
“A little, yeah.” Natalie giggled.
“We won’t be too much longer with this initial setup. Go ahead and order the pizza and we’ll be along in a little while.”
Ethan caught Natalie’s gaze as he left her office and she smiled softly. He returned her smile and pulled the door shut behind him, noticing the jingling of the bell that hung on the door to announce a client coming or going.
The evening summer breeze carried a hint of manure from the nearby farms and someone’s recently cut grass. He ascended the stairs to the veranda porch and gazed out across the rolling hills, wondering if he’d already died and this is what heaven felt like.
Growing up with marble floors, crystal chandeliers, and servants to cater to his every need was different from this simple life. He hoped the riches he’d brought from his homeland would bless these good people in some way as he passed on to the next plane of existence. He’d made a good decision coming here.
The door behind him creaked and Bonnie pushed open the screen door. “Were you planning to come inside?”
“No…” Ethan sighed. “I want to stay on this porch, gazing out at these rolling hills, until the day that I die.”
“How are you feeling?” Bonnie asked, a compassionate motherly tone in her voice.
“I’m tired,” he answered honestly. “But… resigned.” He suspected that Bonnie understood that he didn’t mean sleepy. He meant his body was fighting… and losing.
“Are you hungry? I was just about to start dinner.” She nodded her head to the side inviting him in.
“Not really, but I’d like to buy us all some pizza, if that would be an okay choice for dinner.”
“That sounds great,” she said. “I’ll get the phone number for the pizzeria.”
“Can we get some salad and breadsticks too?” Ethan followed her into the house, digging his wallet from his back pocket.
“Sure, what do you like on your pizza?” Bonnie asked.
“Whatever you guys want. I usually just get a supreme.”
“That’s what we like also.” She smiled as she reached for the phone and dialed from a menu tacked to a bulletin board. “Hi, Rick, it’s Bonnie Dolan. We’d like to order a couple of medium pizzas, supreme, with an antipasto salad and an order of breadsticks.”
Just as the pizzas arrived, Natalie and Miles tromped up the porch steps and entered the house with a jovial lilt to their conversation. Ethan was quick to meet the pizza delivery boy at the front door and paid with a fifty offering for the boy to keep the change.
They laughed and joked and made plans as they crunched on salad and the best handmade pizza Ethan had ever enjoyed. He wished there was more time left in his life because this is where he would want to spend his last weeks. He reminded himself that travelling to all the fun places they mentioned would also be fun and would be better than sitting around waiting to die.
He didn’t realize his shoulders were slumped and his lids were heavy until Bonnie said, “Ethan you look like you could fall asleep right at the dinner table.”
“I think I’m slipping into a food coma,” Ethan joked, resting his hand on his stomach. “This was all so good.”
“Oh yes, I slaved over a hot stove to reach for the phone and order you this pizza.” They all laughed at Bonnie’s joke.
He knew he needed to leave; he had a long drive to get home to Omaha. He sighed and wiped his mouth on his napkin then dropped it on his plate and pushed back his chair. “Thank you, Dolan family. This has possibly been one of the best days of my life, but it is getting late.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Natalie said as Ethan shook Miles’ hand and gave Bonnie a quick hug.
As they left the coolness of the home and stepped onto the veranda, the sunset took Ethan’s breath away and he stopped short. Pinks and greys and oranges blended together in ribbons of color sitting over the horizon. “Is all of America this beautiful?” he whispered.
“Let’s go find out,” she whispered back, joining him on the porch and letting the screen door swing closed behind her. When Natalie stepped up beside him, Ethan fought the urge to wrap his arm around her and pull her close.
What was he thinking? He could not let this train of thought continue. He could not allow himself to care about her. More important, he couldn’t allow her to develop feelings for him. He was dying. He had to keep reminding himself of that.
“Do you want to sit down on the porch swing for a few minutes to watch the sunset?” Natalie asked.
Ethan turned to where she indicated, noticing a gracefully aged wooden swing with comfortable cushions and large, painted chain links anchoring it to the ceiling of the porch. Without verbally answering her, he found himself drawn to the swing and lowered himself into the cushions, eyes still on the sunset but distracted by the hanging flower baskets and the magnetic attraction to the woman beside him.
All conversation behind them for the day, they just rocked on the swing, a gentle swaying, the mesmerizing colors in the sky blending into one soft pastel ribbon for which there was no name.
“Ethan?” Bonnie’s soft voice startled him. Natalie was no longer sitting beside him on the swing but standing beside her mother, whose compassionate smile invited him to follow her request. “I want you to come inside and lay down in the guest room for a little while.”
“Okay,” he mumbled and cleared his throat, allowing the two women to help him to his feet. The coolness of the front living room drew him to the sofa by the lamp, but he felt gentle hands pull him toward a hallway and down to a room he hadn’t seen before.
A four-poster bed sat prominently in the room and he was guided there. On instinct he found himself sitting and then his head was on a pillow. Someone removed his shoes, but he couldn’t see through his eyelids, nor did he know who rested the quilt over his shoulders. The pillow smelled of lavender…
“Well… I need to go to New York City, anyway,” Ethan said. “Natalie offered to come with me. I need to settle affairs with the trustees who’ve been handling my estate for years.”
“I’m excited to travel with you,” Natalie said, lifting another forkful of her food. She didn’t seem to notice her father’s death glare from across the table. “As long as we can take your car. Mine’s a little old. Plus, I’ll require a separate hotel room everywhere we go.”
“Money is no object, obviously.” Ethan hesitated, glancing at Miles, who still seemed to be choking and holding his anger at bay. Bonnie placed her hand on his arm as if to prevent him from reaching across the table to strangle Ethan.
“Mom,” Natalie continued with excitement. “We also want to go see Niagara Falls, and Mackinaw Island, and Ethan’s sister, Princess Miranda, and his cousins, and… what was the other big thing?” Natalie turned to Ethan with a crease in her brow.
“The Grand Canyon,” Ethan said, dabbing at his mouth with his napkin and trying to avoid her father’s glare.
“Ooh, we should go to Los Vegas while we’re over there. It’s only a couple hours from the Grand Canyon.” Natalie’s emerald eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Gee, don’t elope while you’re in Vegas.” Bonnie chuckled nervously, her smile faltering.
Ethan and Natalie both snorted a laugh, wrinkled their faces at each other and answered at nearly the same time.
“Mom, we’re not dating.”
“I’m just her client.”
The room grew quiet for a moment and Ethan leaned over his plate to shovel in another bite of potato, avoiding anyone’s gaze.
Eventually Natalie broke the silence. “Mom, you should see the bucket list Ethan has. We have so many exciting things to do before he… uh…” Natalie glanced at Ethan with wide eyes and bit her lower lip, drawing his attention to them without his permission.
“Kick the bucket?” he finished her sentence and chuckled. “It’s okay, we can talk about the elephant in the room. I know it’s cliché, but that’s why I made the bucket list. Because I’m dying.”
“I guess I don’t want to think about it that way.” Natalie’s voice lowered and shook.
Bonnie brought some humor back into her voice. “Ethan, I bet you didn’t realize you’d be in such a hurry to check off that list, huh?”
“Actually, I just made the list a few weeks ago at my father’s suggestion,” Ethan said. “He knew what I was planning to do with my inheritance and wanted me to enjoy the last few weeks, hopefully months, of my life and not take things too seriously. That’s a harder task than you’d realize.” He shoveled in another bite of potato, forcing himself not to cry.
“I’ve never been to most of these places either,” Natalie said. “I’m excited. This will be like a vacation for me. A working vacation, of course.” She tucked her hair behind her ear and lowered her gaze.
Ethan wasn’t quite sure how much work they’d be doing but he certainly wasn’t going to complain. He wouldn’t be alone and that was a welcome addition to these last few weeks of his life.
“You should take grandpa’s motorhome,” Miles said suddenly. “That way you can travel in comfort, won’t have to worry about finding hotels along the way, and will have a traveling office. That thing’s state of the art, with wifi and satellite and a full kitchen and bathroom.”
“That’s a great idea, daddy.” Natalie nodded with a compassionate wonder in her gaze. “You don’t think he’d mind?”
Ethan suspected they all knew what she was really asking her father, for his permission.
“I think your grandfather would be very proud of you for helping your fr—client.”
“Thank you.” Her whisper was barely audible, and they were all quiet for a moment.
“Ethan, would you like another potato?” Bonnie asked, reaching for his plate. “We have plenty.”
“Thank you, that would be wonderful.” He handed Bonnie his plate and smiled shyly at Natalie, offering her a tiny wink before turning back to reach for his glass of lemonade. So far, this had been one of the happiest days of his life.
An intercom beeped through the phone on Natalie’s desk and a woman’s voice rang out. “Nattie, I made lunch. Take a break and bring your client over to introduce me.”
“Okay, mom,” Natalie called into the air then looked over at Ethan. “Our house is just next door. Come on.”
They left her law office, which was a small home that had been converted, and stepped onto a quaint sidewalk lined with maple trees. Towering over the town, the trees created a shady tunnel between her office and a modest home with a veranda porch wrapping around the front and side.
The wooden steps up to the porch creaked a little under Ethan’s weight in a comfortable homey way. A sense of peace washed over Ethan as Natalie held open the door and he stepped into an elegant living room worthy of greeting formal guests yet casual enough to sit at the window seat with a novel and gaze out across the tiny town tucked into the heart of Nebraska. Forget lunch; Ethan wanted to sink onto the embroidered sofa and lose himself in time.
An older version of Natalie came walking down the hall with a friendly smile. “Hello, Mr. Sayid, welcome to our home.” Ethan reached for her outstretched hand, honored that she had pronounced his name correctly and wondered if she’d been coached by her lovely daughter.
“Please, call me Ethan.” He nodded politely.
“And you can call me Bonnie,” she said then turned back toward an open kitchen. “I hope you’re hungry. I made baked potatoes on the grill and they are just falling out of their skins.”
“That sounds wonderful, Bonnie, thank you.” Ethan opened his arm to Natalie, then lowered his voice. “I’ll follow you.”
As she passed him to head down the hall after her mother, Ethan fought the urge to rest his hand on her lower back. He smiled at her but silently chastised himself. I’m her client, not her friend.
“I have a confession to make.” Bonnie giggled like a little girl. “Natalie and I spent most of the evening yesterday researching you on the internet.”
“Oh, you did, did you?” Ethan cocked his head and raised his eyebrows at Natalie, fighting a full-on grin.
“Don’t look at me,” Natalie said. “The internet search was my mom’s idea.”
“Was our little search this morning your mom’s idea also?” Ethan leaned against a large kitchen table that had been built in the style of a giant butcher block with just the right amount of wear to give it soft character.
The heavenly scent of grilled food and chopped green onions wafted from the kitchen island where small oval foil packets cooled on a rack. They’d been charred on the outside and he could almost taste the baked potatoes inside. He turned his attention back to Bonnie.
“What juicy details did you uncover?”
“Let’s see, you made the Dean’s List at Pace University.”
“That, I did.”
“You once dated an exotic beauty from India who attended your college.”
“She was after my money,” Ethan said, waving his arm dismissively. “We broke off the engagement when she complained her diamond wasn’t large enough.”
Natalie gasped and covered her mouth.
“I’m kidding. We were never engaged. But she was dating me for my money and the prestige of being seen on the arm of a prince.”
“That’s terrible.” Natalie’s eyes were still wide with horror as she opened a cupboard to pull down plates, and a drawer to dig out silverware.
“Here, let me help you with those.” Ethan reached for the stack of plates and distributed them around the table, which felt quite normal even though he’d never sat around a family table in a real kitchen like this. Every suite at the palace had a dining area but servants brought the meals and plated the food. The main dining hall with the whole royal family was stuffy and formal. This was exciting.
“Actually, bring those over to the island.” Bonnie pointed to the spot beside the potatoes.
“Won’t we be sitting at the table together?” Ethan looked longingly at the butcher block table, not hiding his disappointment.
“Of course, we will,” Bonnie said softly. “But we’ll dish up from over here. That way I don’t have to bring over all the toppings.”
“That makes sense.” Ethan gathered up the plates and nested them in a pile next to the potatoes.
A door to the back end of the kitchen clunked open and Miles Dolan stomped his feet on the rug by the door. “Do I have time to wash up before lunch? Weeding that garden took longer than I thought it would. Oh, hello, Ethan, how are you this afternoon?” Miles smiled as he stepped over to the large kitchen sink and turned on the faucet.
“Get out of my kitchen with those filthy hands,” Bonnie scolded him. “Go use the utility sink in the laundry room.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Miles saluted Bonnie playfully then turned to Ethan. “See what I put up with around here?”
“You lead a tough life, Mr. Dolan,” Ethan called after him as he disappeared around a corner in another hallway off the back of the kitchen.
“Natalie, why don’t you and Ethan dish up first?” Bonnie lifted a plate off the stack and handed it to Natalie, who then handed it to Ethan and grabbed another.
“Is there a trick to this?” Ethan asked, scooting up next to her and placing his plate beside hers on the island.
“Yeah, touch as little of the foil as possible so you don’t get covered in charcoal.” Natalie grasped an oval foil ball by one tiny corner and shook the little packet as the perfectly baked potato rolled down from its wrapper.
Ethan followed her lead and soon a steaming lump landed on his plate, breaking open the skin and releasing an earthy smell that made his mouth water. He watched as she spread open the skin of her potato and dolloped butter and sour cream inside before sprinkling shredded cheddar and minced green onions on top. He tried to re-create her masterpiece and thought he came up with something pretty close.
Natalie and Ethan moved over to the table and before she sat down, Natalie reached for a large pitcher of lemonade and poured them each a glass. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to ask. Do you like lemonade? Or would you rather have something else.”
“That sounds perfect actually.” Ethan lifted the heavy glass she offered him, and drips of condensation already gathered on the sides. The sweet and sour combination was iced, delicious heaven as it travelled down his throat.
Bonnie hummed as she plated a potato for herself and one for Miles and joined them at the table just as Miles returned from his handwashing in the utility room.
“These smell wonderful, my dear.” Miles kissed Bonnie on top of her head as he sat next to her.
They were all quiet for a moment as they ate until Natalie glanced up as if remembering something.
“Daddy, I’m going to need you to run the office for a few weeks by yourself because I’m going on a road trip with Ethan to New York City.”
She probably should have waited until her father had finished eating because he immediately choked on his food and the muffled cough that followed sounded something like, “Over my dead body.”
“Let me get this straight,” Miles stopped them again. Ethan was forcing himself to stay patient. “You’re dying of cancer and want our help to give away all your money.”
“And you really are a prince?”
Ethan reached into his briefcase again and pulled out his passport and diplomatic papers, spreading them in front of Miles, who had finally finished his meal.
Miles lifted each document and examined it with the scrutiny of an attorney. He narrowed his eyes at Ethan. “Where do you live now?”
“I bought a small house near Omaha where I have backups of everything I’m providing to you.”
“That’s too far away for you to drive back there tonight,” Natalie said with a panic in her voice.
“Like I said earlier, I’ve reserved a room at the bed and breakfast.”
“You should stay with us,” Natalie said.
“Natalie!” Miles cried. “You can’t just invite a strange man to sleep at our house!”
“Why not? Momma won’t mind. She loves to entertain. She’ll make a better breakfast than he’d ever get over at Rachel’s bed and breakfast.”
“Absolutely not, young lady.”
“Daddy, I am thirty-one years old and a professional attorney. I am most certainly not a young lady.”
“Thank you for the offer, Natalie, but I think I’m going to keep my reservation at the bed and breakfast.” Ethan pushed himself away from the folding table and returned to his chair near her desk. “Let’s get back to work, shall we?”
* * * * * * * * *
“How did you sleep last night at the bed and breakfast?” Natalie asked when Ethan got seated across from her desk. “Were you able to handle the stairs okay?” Concern for his welfare was a welcome change after having been alone for the past several months and feeling the decline in his health.
“The suite was comfortable and quiet with a beautiful view of the sunrise this morning. I slept like a baby.” Ethan laid the stack of paperwork on her desk, which had yet to be filled out. “You were right about the stairs. By the time I hoisted myself up there with my small travel bag I had to sit down at the top and rest for a few minutes. I think I’m going to drive home tonight to Omaha rather than stay at the bed and breakfast again.”
“Nonsense,” Natalie said. “You can stay with us. And I’ll help you with the paperwork.” She reached across the desk and pulled the stack closer.
“Your dad would throw a fit again,” Ethan said. “I’ll be fine driving home.”
“That’s almost two hours, Ethan.” Natalie’s jaw dropped. Her emerald eyes had darkened to a hazy jade and frustration pulled her brows together.
“More like an hour and a half. I live on the outskirts of town.” He waved away her concern, afraid if she continued these passionate exchanges, he would say something inappropriate again and offend her. She was beautiful to the point of making his stomach flutter, or maybe that was the homemade pastry he’d indulged in during breakfast.
“Hmpf.” She scowled at him and started flipping through the stack of papers. “Did you have trouble with any of these questions? Or did you just not have time to fill them out?”
“When I got to my room, I was so exhausted I prepared for bed immediately. I barely glanced at the packet. I noticed that you need tax information for my new house. I’ll have to find that when I get home tonight.”
“We can look up that information on the internet.” Natalie turned to her computer and jiggled the mouse. The screen saver—a picture of a big family wedding—disappeared and she opened a browser window. “You’d be surprised how many public records you can find on the internet. Hey, do you mind if I do a Google search for your kingdom? I want to know where you’re from.” The excited gleam in her eyes was enough incentive for him to offer her anything she desired.
“M-a-d-a-i-n S-a-l-e-h,” Ethan said as she typed. Images popped up on her screen and he couldn’t help leaning across the desk to see better.
“Is that your mother and father?” Natalie leaned closer as well. “Oh, Ethan, she’s beautiful. You have her eyes. And your skin tone is closer to hers than your fathers.”
“Her Grace is elegant.” Ethan’s words caught in his throat as he took in his mother’s multicolored eyes. Her copper skin had aged well, and she never tried to hide her full figure. Ethan always had the impression that his father loved her curves and was often caught gazing at her across the room with love and longing in his eyes.
Ethan wished he could have a tiny bit of the passion his parents had for one another but knew that wasn’t possible. Loving a dying man would just lead to hurt and loss. He would never want to do that to a woman.
“I wish I could introduce you to them.” Ethan cleared his husky throat and refocused, pointing to the screen. “That’s my sister, Princess Miranda, the one who’s married to Prince Hayden.”
“She looks more like your father,” Natalie said. “And she lives in the United States?”
“Yes, they settled close to Hayden’s family in the Hudson Valley a few hours from New York City.”
“Didn’t you say you needed to go to the city to settle some affairs?” Natalie asked. “Maybe we could take a detour afterward and go visit her.”
“Do you have time in your schedule to travel with me?” Ethan’s heart raced with excitement. The idea of spending hours together in a car was intriguing. “Don’t you need to work?”
“Work is slow right now,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Have you seen any clients coming and going since you arrived yesterday? My father can handle any business we have for a couple days.”
“I plan to be travelling for a couple of weeks,” Ethan said. “I have a bucket list of famous places to see. I want my last few days to have meaning. I don’t want to sit home and wait to die.”
“What if you get sick while you’re travelling?” Natalie’s voice lowered with concern and compassion.
“Then I’ll check myself into a hospital and wait there to die, hoping the duration of my stay won’t be prolonged.”
“Do you have a DNR?” She gulped.
“Yes, it’s right here.” Ethan reached into his briefcase and pulled out the legal document. “Do not resuscitate. Only palliative care.”
“That’s smart.” Her voice caught at the end. “No reason to prolong the inevitable. Better to keep you comfortable.” Did she have tears in the corners of her eyes?
“Are you okay?”
“I just need a minute.” Natalie rose from her desk and grabbed a tissue on the way to stand by the window. She dabbed at her eyes a few times then turned with a determined stance. “I’m struggling with this, Ethan. Usually when I talk to clients about estate planning, it’s in the abstract, in the future, sometime far away. Not a young, handsome man who doesn’t seem ready to die.”
“Oh, come on, I thought I looked handicapped.” Ethan chuckled and stood from his chair. He leaned against the edge of her desk and folded his arms. From where he stood, Ethan could see out the window at rolling hills in the distance. Keeping his eyes unfocused on the horizon he mused. “You’re right though; I’m not ready to die.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment then he shook off his stupor and returned to the present.
“Would you like to see my bucket list?” Ethan reached into his briefcase and pulled out a handwritten piece of paper. A few of the items had already been crossed off. He handed the paper to Natalie who sat in the chair next to his rather than moving to the other side of her desk.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Niagara Falls.” She ran her finger down the page. She looked up at him with raised eyebrows. “Mackinaw Island?”
“I hear it’s beautiful.” Ethan cleared his throat and nodded to the page. “Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?”
“No… gosh, no wonder you want to take several weeks. This is a long list.”
“Running out of time, aren’t I?”
“Well, let’s get this paperwork started so we can get on the road.” Her false enthusiasm broke the seriousness of the moment, which Ethan welcomed. He was here for business.
Getting all these emotions involved was adding confusion to Ethan’s situation. Natalie had already made her intentions clear. He was a client, and she didn’t date clients. Not that he’d date her anyway. He was dying with an inoperable malignant brain tumor. He had a few months left, at the most.
“I was the first-born to Prince Elmer Sayid,” Ethan said, sitting straight in the chair across from Natalie’s desk, all business and ready to give her a full explanation. “Ten years ago, when my great-grandfather died, my father was crowned king of the tiny kingdom of Madain Saleh, which was recently absorbed into Saudi Arabia. My mother and father still reign as king and queen, although we are no longer considered an independent sovereign nation-state.”
“Do you still have contact with your parents?” Natalie asked. She had begun taking notes, a simple pen in hand and a spiral notebook. The blotter on her desk was stained in several places where a mug had created a condensation ring and scribbles where she’d tested an old pen or marker. There were crayon drawings facing Ethan showing stick figures and cartoons. Ethan could picture a small child, kneeling on a chair beside a harried, frustrated parent, leaning over the desk with a crayon to stay busy while waiting for their mom or dad to be done with this boring appointment. Natalie didn’t seem bored, so Ethan continued.
“They are aware of my intentions, but we have said our goodbyes. I don’t want anyone, other than my attorneys, to know who I am giving the money to.” Ethan nodded toward Natalie. “There are instructions in my notes to have my body returned to my parents so that I can be interred with the rest of the royal family.”
“And you don’t have any other family members who could make a claim against your estate?”
“I have some cousins and a sister, but they are not privy to my location or diagnosis,” Ethan said. “They are all extremely wealthy and don’t need my money, but I have written each of them a letter to be delivered after my passing.”
“I’m assuming their contact information is in your notes?” She didn’t look up from her notetaking.
“Of course. Please, I need you to recognize that everything I do between now and when I die should be confidential between you, me, and your father. Are you comfortable with that?”
“Yes, Mr. Sayid—I mean, Ethan—I’m comfortable with that.” She finally met his gaze.
“How much would you like as a retainer?” Ethan pulled out his checkbook and clicked open a pen.
“Well, the first half hour consultation is free”—Natalie looked up at her clock— “We haven’t quite reached that, so—”
Ethan cut her off. “I’ll just write the first check for $5,000 and we’ll go from there.” He leaned forward and began writing the check before she could protest.
“I was going to say $200,” she whispered and sat back in her chair. The wheels creaked as the momentum pushed her a few inches away from her desk. She clasped her hand over her chest. Her cheap, department store blouse hid behind a faded cardigan sweater with one button missing.
Ethan couldn’t help thinking she’d look beautiful in one of the handwoven overwraps his sister, Princess Miranda, had purchased in India last year. He had the sudden desire to introduce Natalie to his sister but knew that wasn’t an option. In order for this plan to work, no one in his family could have knowledge of where he was or who he was working with. A lump formed in his throat and he had to look away.
“You… can’t possibly… realize.” A broken sob escaped from the startled attorney and Ethan whipped his gaze back to her.
“What is it? What have I done wrong?” Ethan leaned forward in concern.
“No”—Natalie held her hand up to stop him— “Not wrong. I haven’t taken a paycheck in weeks because our budget is so tight. I’ve barely had any paid clients in months. This town is so destitute. You are an answer to my prayers.”
Natalie lowered her head into her hands and broke into tears. Ethan set his pen and checkbook on the desk and came around to her side, dropping to his knees in front of her and pulling her into his arms. He didn’t speak, just held her while she rested her head on his shoulder and cried.
Suddenly she pushed away from him and scrambled to get out of her chair. “What are you doing? What am I doing?” She hurried to the other side of the room, grabbing a tissue from the box on the corner of her desk.
Ethan used what strength he had left and hoisted himself from the floor, closing his eyes and counting backwards from ten. He had trained himself to snap out of any pain by the time he reached one. Some days the technique worked better than others. He opened his eyes and blew out a long breath.
“Are you okay?” Natalie took a tentative step forward, not quite reaching out to him, but fighting the natural instinct to want to help another human.
“Maybe we should be done for the day.” Ethan lowered himself back into the chair in front of her desk and finished writing her check, reminding himself to sign his name without his full title. That would take some getting used to.
He realized in that moment that international travel would not be in his best interest now that he was maintaining a low profile. His passport and identification were diplomatic documents designed to allow him access throughout the world. Even getting pulled over by a local police officer would draw unwanted attention.
“Where are you staying? There are no hotels between here and Omaha.”
“I’ve reserved a room at the bed and breakfast on First Street,” Ethan said, still trying to catch his breath.
“That’s not exactly handicap accessible,” Natalie said, pacing again. “They don’t even have a main floor suite. You’d have to climb all those stairs. There’s a Holiday Inn up in Columbus but that’s a half hour drive.”
“Do I look handicapped to you?” Ethan glanced at his Italian made Sutor Mantellassi shoes and Dolce & Gabbana cashmere suit. Everything about him screamed success, other than his pallid skin and the diaphoretic sheen on his forehead.
“Yes,” Natalie said, handing him a tissue which he used to wipe his face. “You do look handicapped and I don’t like the idea of you climbing all those stairs.”
As Ethan was contemplating the need for a wardrobe change in order to blend in with society, Natalie’s father swept in the front door with a bag of Chinese take-out and a cheerful smile.
“Whose Lincoln Continental is that out front?” Miles Dolan asked, not having noticed Ethan yet. “I need to get me one of those when I become rich and famous.” He snorted, laughing at his own joke.
Ethan rose from his chair and offered Miles a subdued grin. “Or I could just leave you that beauty in my will. She purrs like a kitten and rides like a cloud.”
“Well, hello there, I didn’t realize we had company.” Miles set the bag of food on the folding table in the corner of the sparsely decorated office and turned to Ethan.
“Hello, Mr. Dolan, I’m Ethan Sayid.” He reached out a hand. “Your daughter and I were just discussing me hiring your firm to draft some estate planning documents.”
“Welcome, Mr. Salad.” Miles clasped his hand and cocked his head to the side. “Where are you from? Your attempt to disguise your foreign accent isn’t working.”
“Please, just call me Ethan.” He chose not to point out the complete mispronunciation of his last name, but Natalie jumped in with a correction.
“It’s pronounced Sigh-eed, Daddy.” Natalie helped him out of his coat and hung it on the coat hanger in the corner. “He’s from somewhere in Saudi Arabia, right?” Natalie turned to Ethan and raised her eyebrows.
“Madain Saleh, yes.” Ethan tucked both hands in his pants pockets, feeling better after having rested a minute. Dropping to his knees so quickly and then leaning over to push himself off the floor had messed up his equilibrium.
Miles creased his brows, all friendliness gone from his countenance. Natalie didn’t seem to notice her father’s reaction.
“Would you care to join us for lunch, Ethan?” Natalie began pulling containers out of the bag and spreading them on the table. She opened a container of white rice, fried rice, egg rolls, noodles, and orange chicken. Ethan’s mouth watered and stomach rumbled at the heavenly aromas.
“I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
“Oh please, we have plenty.” She waved away his concern. “Daddy always buys enough for lunch and dinner.”
“Well, I insist on buying you both dinner this evening to make up for your willingness to share your lunch.” Ethan sidestepped Miles—who seemed to need a minute more to absorb the situation—and joined Natalie at the small folding table.
“You’re on,” she said, handing him a paper plate. With each helping of food she scooped onto her plate, she added a scoop to his and her father’s. “Come on, Daddy, let’s eat.”
“I’ve heard of people like you.” Miles didn’t try to hide his suspicion as he joined them at the table. “You prey on unsuspecting young ladies, claiming to be a Jordanian prince and convincing them to send you money to some overseas bank.”
“Prince Rashid is a very nice man,” Ethan said, ripping open the clear wrap around the plastic fork and napkin provided by the Chinese restaurant. A little packet of salt fell out and he set it aside. Chinese food was usually salty enough on its own. “My father served with him on the United Nations Security Council a few years ago, I think.” Ethan carefully lifted a bite of food onto the fork and leaned over his plate to avoid spilling.
“Who—what?” Miles shook his head in confusion.
“The Jordanian prince,” Ethan said, hiding his mouth behind a napkin to avoid talking with his mouth full of food. “They’re one of our primary trading partners.”
“Would you rather have chopsticks?” Natalie handed a pair of bamboo sticks to Ethan. “Those little forks are so hard to use.”
“Oh, thank goodness, yes.” Ethan gladly took the chopsticks and expertly lifted the next bite of food with ease.
“How long have you lived here in America, Ethan?” Natalie asked before sitting across from him. She separated her bamboo sticks and picked up a clump of rice and a piece of orange chicken.
“We have a penthouse in New York City for the family to use when my father was serving in the UN, and my sister and I both stayed there while attending Pace University. She remained in the States and married one of Prince Marcos’ sons, and I returned to the kingdom after business school.”
“Who’s Prince Marcos?” Natalie seemed completely at ease now that they were chatting over lunch rather than discussing legal affairs. Ethan wondered if her demeaner would shift back to her stoic professionalism once they were sitting across from each other at her desk again.
“My father’s second cousin, which would make Prince Hayden my sister’s third cousin… I think?” Ethan took another bite of food.
“Far enough removed by anyone’s standards, I’d say,” Natalie said.
“They met at the king’s funeral of all places.” Ethan chuckled and shook his head remembering with fondness how the young princes had fallen all over each other to gain favor with Princess Miranda.
“I thought your father was still alive?” Natalie cocked her head to the side.
“Yes, my father’s coronation was on the same day as my great-great-grandfather’s funeral. Confusing, I know.”
“Would the two of you please explain to me what you’re talking about?” Miles had yet to take a bite of food and seemed to grow more agitated the longer Ethan and Natalie spoke.
“How about if Natalie tells the story and I’ll fill in the missing details,” Ethan suggested, nodding to her. “That will help you to understand things better anyway. I know my story is very complicated and we don’t have many months left to get things taken care of.”
Ethan pushed his chair back and reached into his briefcase for a money clip and drew out several hundred-dollar bills. He slid them across the table along with the check he’d written.
“Also, I’d like you to keep this, at least until my check clears. I don’t want you to think I’m trying to swindle you out of the retainer. Sorry I don’t have five thousand in cash, but four hundred is at least more than the original two you had anticipated.”
Miles Dolan’s jaw dropped but Ethan pulled himself forward again and picked up his chopsticks, letting the father and daughter team gape at the exorbitant amount of money on their cheap folding table. Maybe now they’d believe him.
Prince Ethan Sayid of Madain Saleh had every intention of walking into the attorney’s office and stating the facts, “I’m dying, and I need to give away all my money.”
But when the beautiful, young lawyer looked up from her desk with eyes that sparkled like emeralds, he choked. He disguised his accent and changed his approach.
“I need help preparing a will,” he said.
“You’ve come to the right place.” She rose from her desk and stepped forward with her hand raised. “Estate planning is my specialty.”
“You’re perfect,” Ethan said then shook off his awe as he clasped her hand in greeting. “I mean, that’s perfect. I need an estate attorney.”
“I’m Natalie Dolan. It’s nice to meet you, Mister…”
“Salad?” She raised her eyebrows and bit her lower lip. Was she laughing?
“No, Sayid, like sigh-eed.” Ethan cringed. “It’s a traditional middle eastern name that is not widely used in American culture.”
This was why he didn’t want to use his real name anymore. But his attorney would need his full legal name if she was going to help him. She didn’t need to know his full title or lineage, however. At least not yet.
“Please, just call me Ethan unless you’re filling out legal documents.”
He was a prince in name only and the last of his family. His tiny monarchy had been swallowed into the deserts of the middle east and the royal family splintered. When his great-great grandfather, King Sayid of Madain Saleh had died at the age of one-hundred and six, Ethan’s parents had remained in their homeland to take their rightful place as heirs, but the country had now been absorbed into Saudi Arabia.
Ethan had heard tales of how his uncles and father had fought over what was left of their grandfather’s power until all that was left was the money. A monarchy without a kingdom is merely a very wealthy family. Now that his parents had signed over their fortune, Ethan was the sole heir to just over a billion dollars.
And he was dying.
The trouble is cancer doesn’t know who is rich and who is poor, who is young and who is old, who is the last of a decimated royal blood line, or who is the first-generation in a newly-created interracial family with all the promise that ensues. No, cancer doesn’t care.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” Natalie said with a barely contained hysteria. She collapsed back into her leather swivel chair. “It’s just been one of those days. I think I need an evening of binge-watching old episodes of The Big Bang Theory and eating chocolate ice cream.”
“I’m rather fond of chocolate ice cream myself,” Ethan said, sitting cautiously in the seat across her desk.
“What about old sitcoms?” She chuckled.
“Is that an invitation?” Ethan leaned forward and couldn’t help his voice dropping to what he imagined was a sexy, smoldering huskiness. He rarely invested the time to pursue a woman, so this was unfamiliar territory.
Natalie seemed momentarily distracted and speechless, then cleared her throat and shook her head as if to refocus. “I don’t date my clients.” She gulped.
“My apologies,” Ethan said. He pulled back his stance and resumed an air of professionalism. “Shall we discuss a more appropriate topic? Help me with my estate planning. I’m a billionaire prince with no throne or heir, and I’m dying of cancer.”
“You’re so funny, Ethan.” She opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a packet of forms, obviously assuming he was joking. “Here is the stack of paperwork needed to get started. With something so important as estate planning, I prefer to have paper copies in the client’s own handwriting, as well as computer files, and printed copies with signatures. Do you have someone who will be your witness? And do you have in mind who will be your named beneficiaries?”
“I have very little in the way of physical possessions, other than a very large trust account controlled mostly by myself and a few carefully-chosen trustees, none of whom I fully trust. I have done a great deal of research into charitable organizations throughout the world and have determined approximate dollar amounts I’d like to leave to each of them. I have the list here.”
Ethan pulled from his briefcase a fifty-seven-page single-spaced, twelve-point font document that represented his years of research narrowed down to a bulleted list of the names of charitable organizations.
“I have computer files backed up on multiple servers as well as paper documentation for each of these organizations in my nondescript home in an undisclosed location. Given my recent prognosis, I am concerned that my wishes will not be carried out if I don’t take action quickly. I have researched your father’s law firm here in the middle of the United States of America where I have determined that your firm has no affiliation with any of my trustees nor any of these organizations. I apologize for not being forthcoming as to my intentions upon walking into your office, but I must admit I was taken aback by your beauty. I will attempt to maintain a level of professionalism from now on.” Ethan finally stopped, feeling as if he had already overwhelmed the poor girl. He was right.
“I thought you were joking,” Natalie whispered.
“Not in the least, Ms. Dolan,” Ethan said. “My research has shown that you conduct a great deal of your business pro-bono for the less-fortunate in your community and that you don’t seem to be persuaded by the prospect of becoming wealthy from your work as an attorney. But I dare say the large sum of money I will offer you to take on my case will assist you in providing a great deal of service long after my departure.”
“You’re kind of freaking me out right now, Mr. Sayid.” Natalie rose from her chair and began pacing the floor of her small office.
“Again, I apologize. I had hoped to handle this differently but was momentarily caught up in a youthful fantasy of actually meeting a woman who would care about me for my charm and personality rather than my crown and wealth. It is unfortunate that I finally meet someone worth pursuing days after receiving the news that my cancer is inoperable and will likely be my demise. Not that I’m a stranger to adversity, mind you. I’ve had a price on my head since the day it was determined that I was a male, and potential heir to the throne in a highly-contested battle for the last semblance of power in my country of origin.”
“I think I need a drink,” Natalie said.
“I think you need to stick to the chocolate ice cream and binge-watching old sitcoms,” Ethan answered. “I need you at your highest mental faculties if we are to accomplish this task in the limited amount of time I have left.”
“Okay,” she squeaked out.
“Okay, what?” Ethan asked.
“Okay, I’ll take your case,” Natalie said.
“Thank goodness.” Ethan lowered his shoulders in a relieved sigh. “I don’t have time to do any more research.”
“My son, the time has come,” Eli said, taking Ethan by the shoulders with a piercing gaze.
“What if I’m not ready, Your Majesty?” The vulnerability in Ethan’s pale face pulled at Eli’s heart, almost to the point of backing out of their plan. His hair had grown out and he’d gained weight. The fight was over. His multi-colored eyes, so similar to his mother’s, shone with unshed tears.
“You are ready, Your Highness. But more importantly, the world is waiting.” As hard as it was to watch his son leave, Eli knew he needed to provide that last bit of encouragement.
“I will not be returning to the kingdom,” Ethan said, his voice hitching. “Ever.” At thirty years of age, Ethan had already finished his education at a private business school in New York City and had plans to accomplish great things with his life. This unfortunate turn of events wasn’t part of the plan.
“Invest what time you have left exploring the world and sharing that which is now rightfully yours.”
“This is a large sum of money, Your Majesty. You and mother will be destitute.”
“We have sufficient for our needs to see us through the remainder of our lives.”
“What about Princess Miranda?” Ethan was grasping, delaying his departure.
“Your sister is married to a prince nearly as wealthy as yourself. She will want for nothing.”
“You’re sure you don’t mind me giving it all away?”
“I don’t see this as giving the money away,” Eli said. “I see you investing in the lives of others, using riches that have gathered value for decades and are now liquidated. You have conducted careful research and will make good choices.”
“You’re right, father,” Ethan whispered. “I’ll do my best.”
“While you’re out distributing the money, travel to see the world. Visit the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Lake Victoria, the Mayan ruins, stand on a glacier, go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the St. Louis Arch, float the Amazon River and go on an African Safari.”
“I’m not going to live long enough to do all those things, father. But I’ll do as many as I can.” Ethan pulled Eli into a hug and allowed tears to fall unabashedly. “Take care of mother for me.”
“I promise,” Eli said, pushing his son gently out of his arms. “Now go, before I beg you to stay.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty.” Ethan bowed and then lifted his chin.
Eli held his son’s gaze for one last long moment, then Prince Ethan Sayid turned to go pack and begin this new adventure.
Eli’s heart broke watching his son walk away, knowing the next time he saw Ethan would be the day he was laid to rest.
(Tomorrow’s chapter will start into the last section (of this book), which I call The Last Prince, Prince Ethan’s story)
“The Kingdom of Mada’in Saleh will live on in the memory of King Sayid.” Eli paused to choke back emotion, then pressed forward through the remainder of his prepared eulogy. “We were fortunate to have had him serve our people for many years.
“Since before any of us were born, his throne has been contested. So much so that even now we are unclear who claims the right to the Crown.
“All of our sons, or daughters, who may attempt a claim to that right, have declined. Should any one of them later challenge that right, I fear a civil war would begin.
“For this reason, my wife, Princess Savannah, and I will maintain the throne as king and queen of Mada’in Saleh as we assist the Saudi government to absorb our tiny kingdom. We will serve until at which time we are taken from this earth.
“I have fought all my life for this kingdom, that we might have peace here. I have fought to uphold laws where there was no punishment for crimes. I have watched my kingdom be destroyed by men and women who thought themselves to be above the law.
“I desire that this kingdom should be a land of peace, that all who dwell here will enjoy freedom and liberty, that all people will be equal, that all people will abide by the laws and be punished if they will not.
“King Sayid was my great-grandfather. Prince Marcos Sayid and I are his closest living relatives. As has been agreed upon, Prince Marcos will perform the sacred duty of placing our king’s crown upon my head as a symbolic transfer of power. I will then place Queen Saliana’s crown upon Princess Savannah’s head, naming her as my queen.” Eli stepped back and bowed regally to his cousin.
Prince Marcos, wearing the crown that had been his since his coronation at the age of twenty, the crown that represented the king’s successor, stepped to the front of the marble platform. Eli lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head. With his eyes closed, he felt, rather than saw, his cousin remove the crown from his head and in his mind’s eye envisioned the crown being placed in its velvet and mahogany box to remain forever.
Eli visualized Mark lifting their great-grandfather’s crown from its nest of velvet and felt certain this is what the king would have wanted. All his life Eli had been told his bloodline was inconsequential because he was not the Crown Prince. And now, in the end, the named successor was irrelevant. The mantle now rested on the man least likely to have been given this honor.
“By the power vested in me by the Kingdom of Mada’in Saleh,” Mark said with conviction. “I do hearby pronounce Prince Elmer Sayid, King of Mada’in Saleh until at which time his body is laid to rest.”
King Sayid’s crown was heavier than that which Eli had worn all his life, and yet the weight felt right and true. Without realizing emotion had broken through his carefully maintained façade, Eli felt a tear fall from each of his eyes as he lifted his gaze to his cousin. Mark also had moist eyes but neither of them reached a hand to wipe their faces. That would show a sign of weakness.
“Arise, Your Majesty,” Mark whispered. “And crown your queen.”
Eli rose from his knee and lifted his chin with confidence. “Thank you, Your Highness.” Eli turned to face his wife.
Savannah stood before Eli with a confident yet humble expression, ready to begin this next phase in their lives. Eli was simultaneously reminded of Queen Salaina’s prediction that Savannah would take on a higher calling than princess, as well as his vision during their wedding of Savannah wearing the queen’s crown.
“Princess Savannah, are you prepared to take upon yourself the title of queen and are you prepared to accept the responsibilities, rights, and duties of that title?”
“I am, Your Majesty,” Savannah whispered. She lowered her head, presenting her crown to her husband and closing her eyes. In one confident movement, as he’d done countless times, Eli lifted Savannah’s crown and placed it within its velvet and mahogany box for the last time. He clasped Queen Salaina’s crown, noting the difference in weight, just as he’d noticed the difference in weight when the king’s crown was placed upon his head.
“By the power vested in me as King of Mada’in Saleh, I do hereby crown you, Princess Savannah, Queen of Mada’in Saleh.” Eli lightly rested the crown on his wife’s head and the ring of gold seemed to fit perfectly as if it had been fashioned for her. He took one step back. “Arise, Your Grace.”
Savannah lifted her gaze and Eli fought the need to pull her into his arms and kiss her with power and hunger and passion and life. Oh, what the heck. He was king. He could do whatever he wanted.
Eli pulled his wife forward and took her in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and their lips came together in a kiss that rivaled that which they’d shared at their wedding. The solemn crowd erupted in cheers and catcalls, a celebration of this new age of their kingdom and their new king and queen.
Reluctantly, Eli pulled away from Savannah and joined in the celebration, hugging his cousin, Mark, his son Ethan, his daughter, Miranda, his advisor, Kadin, and anyone else who was brave enough to come forward in congratulations.
The funeral and coronation shifted into an evening of music and dance and celebrating. The young princes from America flirted and danced with Princess Miranda under the watchful eye of her older brother, Prince Ethan. The adults laughed and hugged and smiled as they celebrated the promise of youth. All was well in the kingdom. At least for one night.
(Tomorrow I will share the Epilogue to Prince Eli's story which transitions into his son, Ethan's story, which I call The Last Prince - temporary name, as to be expected with this Top Secret Project! -Julie L. Spencer)
“Your Highness, you know it’s the best course of action,” Mark said, his international line offering clear connection.
Eli knew in his heart that his cousin was right. They’d worked together through the years leaning on one another’s expertise as they’d pushed through the myriad of challenges inherent with running a small country. They’d watched their children grow into young adults, felt the sting of rejection as their young princes chose more worldly pursuits rather than following in their fathers’ footsteps. Now they were faced with choosing a successor to be king of Madain Saleh.
“But I’m not next in line.” Eli’s throat tightened again for the hundredth time since learning of their great-grandfather’s passing early that morning.
“Says who?” Mark asked. “An outdated tradition that has been contested since your grandfather died sixty-five years ago?”
“The king wanted you as his successor,” Eli said, feeling the lie as it left his mouth. Eli had sat beside King Sayid for years, learning from him, comforting him when Queen Salaina had passed, and when Prince Omar had passed, and when the old man was lonely or scared or sick. Their great-grandfather had held on to life for one hundred and six years, always claiming the waters of Madain Saleh were the fountain of youth.
Eli had lived in the kingdom his entire life, while Mark continued to reside in America. They both loved Madain Saleh, but Eli’s allegiance had never been torn between two nations. He knew every little town and village on the outskirts, he’d watched their people struggle through droughts and wars and illnesses, and eventually dwindle into a tiny oasis tucked into the rocky desert.
Their great-grandfather had been the only thing holding this kingdom in existence. The Saudis humored the dying old man. The land would be absorbed into the desert until all that remained were the palaces, tombs, and hieroglyphs no one could translate. Madain Saleh would be a memory.
“Stay and maintain the dignity that has been our homeland for centuries,” Mark said. “As long as there are still members of the royal family willing to claim the throne, Madain Saleh will survive.”
“But you are the rightful heir. You are next in line. You are the Crown.”
“I will continue to be Crown with you as my king.” Mark was now the one whose voice faltered with unshed tears. “At your coronation, I will pledge my allegiance to you.”
“What about your sons?” Eli asked.
“They don’t want that crown any more than your son, or your daughter.”
Mark spoke the truth. Prince Ethan had already moved to America to attend a university and had expressed the desire to stay. Princess Miranda intended to follow her older brother once she completed her secondary school.
No one else cared who claimed the throne. Eli’s niece, Princess Nimrah had taken a lover in Dubai years ago and her sham of a marriage to Ahmed had ended when he died of mysterious causes a few months later. Eli hadn’t heard from Nimrah in ten years or so.
He knew his cousin was right. The time had come for Eli to rule in place of all the others who had been the likely successors. He, who’d been told all his life that his bloodline was inconsequential because he would never be king, was now the only person left to claim the throne, the only person left who loved their kingdom enough to stand within her borders as they crumbled around him.
“Will you be the one to perform the coronation?” Eli asked, hearing his own vulnerability as his voice cracked.
“Of course, Your Highness. My family and I have already begun packing and will be there with you before the end of the week.”
“I look forward to meeting your young princes,” Eli said. He hadn’t seen Aaron and Owen since they were babies and had never met Hayden or Augustus. They planned to hold a press conference that afternoon formally abdicating all rights to the throne, opening the way for the world to recognize Prince Elmer Sayid as the new king of Madain Saleh.
“My young princes look forward to meeting the lovely Princess Miranda,” Mark said with a chuckle.
“They’d better keep their hands off my daughter,” Eli warned in a teasing growl.
“Ah, my friend. It will be good to see you.” There was love and compassion in Mark’s endearment.
“You as well, Your Highness. Travel safely.” Eli found hope in his heart for the first time in days.
Trust no one. That was the underlying message Eli whispered to his cousin 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 Eli’s capable, if only limited, hands.
Once again, the king boldly requested Prince Marcos stand to his right during the formal funeral proceedings, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, with Eli to his left but one step behind. That alone was enough to send a clear message to the kingdom and the world 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. Eli shuddered at the prospect. Mark would be returning to America. Eli would be here to try to hold their kingdom together. If that were possible.
Eli didn’t mind. He’d rather be standing here in the front beside his cousin than behind his father and to the left of his brother. 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. Almost as if Eli and Mark had predicted the outcome, Ethan was nearly the same age as Mark’s son, Aaron.
Behind Prince Marcos, his advisor, Alexander stood to the right, with Princess Hazel to his left, with little Prince Aaron in between, holding each of their hands. Alexander’s wife, Krystina walked immediately behind them carrying baby Prince Owen.
The queen was not healthy enough to accompany the funeral procession, but the king’s second wife, Princess Tayma walked a few feet behind the king with her son, Eli’s father, Omar one step behind and to her right, along with his wife, Eli’s mother, Princess Nijah and his father’s new advisor, Kurtis. Princess 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, Princess Linah, clinging to the king’s arm and faking tears like an award-winning actress. Eli wondered how much she knew about the plot to kill her husband. If she knew that her husband had been planning to kill his father. If she knew why her daughter, Nimrah had married Ahmed. If she knew about the secret underground societies. He suspected she did.
As fate would allow, his cousin 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.
Eli had a private meeting the morning before the funeral with the king, Kadin, Mark and his advisor, Alexander. Everyone knew Ahmed killed Jared, yet no one could prove his guilt. The entire household had 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.
Kadin served the unique position as eyes and ears among the staff and dignitaries. The information he shared with Eli was held close to the chest, but Mark needed to be kept in the loop.
The assassination didn’t make sense. If Ahmed was trying to overthrow the monarchy, why hadn’t he killed the king? If those who were part of the secret underground society in the kingdom thought of Omar as their crown prince, why did they kill his son? Why not kill the Crown? If Eli was ambassador to the United Nations, why not kill him?
There was some underlying reason Ahmed had killed Jared, and Eli needed to learn the truth. For that he needed to stay open to the whisperings and pretend to agree with their tactics. In the process, he was watching his kingdom crumble.
Eli 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.
Madain Saleh would fall.
If Eli thought his and Savannah’s wedding had been planned in haste, Alexander and Krystina had taken wedding planning to a new extreme.
Mark’s advisor had only known Krystina a few months, had discussed the idea of marriage just days prior and gotten engaged that afternoon. When they arrived in the kingdom, King Sayid insisted they allow him to draw up marriage contracts. They decided to wait until after dinner with the family. At least Eli had known Savannah all their lives, had been planning to marry eventually, and waited until the following day.
Eli listened from just outside the door of King Sayid’s secretary’s office where Alexander and Krystina were having a video chat with her parents back in the United States. They hadn’t been preparing for a wedding. No one had.
Krystina’s father wasn’t happy. Her mother was confused. They were both in disbelief that somehow their adult daughter from the mountainous forests of New York State was standing half a world away in the deserts of Madain Saleh, which they’d never heard of, in the office of a king, with several princes and princesses, announcing that she’s about to marry an advisor to a prince right now.
Hi, mom and dad, this is Alexander, I’m going to marry him, like, right now. Would you care to watch the ceremony by video chat? Eli was confused and he was standing right here. He felt bad for her parents.
There wasn’t much space in the tiny office so Eli and Savannah stood just in the hall waiting for their cue. They were still dressed in formal attire, complete with their crowns, as was everyone else in the royal family crowded together for this joyous union.
“Gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever officiated at a wedding that didn’t also involve a coronation,” King Sayid said. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”
“Well, you said you drew up an official contract, right?” Alexander asked. “And we need witnesses.”
“I believe I am qualified for that job,” Mark said. That was Eli’s call to action.
“Myself as well.” Eli snuck into the room, Savannah’s hand in his, ready to officially witness their friends’ marriage agreement.
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,” Princess 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 Alexander 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.” Alexander 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,” Alexander said. “Shall we just say what’s in our hearts?”
“Sounds good to me,” Krystina said. “You go first.”
Without rehearsal, Alexander and Krystina promised their love and commitment to one another and repeated vows meant to join themselves for as long as they lived. Someone in the room sniffed, probably Hazel.
King Sayid stepped forward. “Were those the right words?”
“They were perfect,” Alexander said.
“Okay, then, here is the contract.” The king spread the paperwork onto his secretary’s desk and held out an elegant pen.
“Would you care to sign first, my lady?” Alexander 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 her groom, who leaned forward and with steady hands, wrote his signature. Alexander took a step back and held out the pen to his prince. “Your Highness, would you do the honor?”
Mark’s scrawling name contained his full title and he handed the pen to Eli, who wrote Prince Elmer Sayid of Madain Saleh.
The final signature added at the bottom of the page read, King Sayid of Madain Saleh, the same as on both Eli and Mark’s marriage contracts. The king stepped back and grinned at Alexander and then Krystina.
“By the power vested in me as the King 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 Alexander’s waist. “I don’t need a prince. I have a councilman.” In addition to serving as Mark’s advisor, Alexander also worked as a real estate developer in the United States and was elected to his city council.
“Can I kiss my bride now?” Alexander asked, raising his eyebrows at the king.
“Sure.” Sayid stepped back.
Alexander reached his hands up and lifted Krystina’s face, then lowered his lips to hers.
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 his computer and looked right into the camera.
“Hey, you, mister fancy councilman, you’d better take care of my little girl, you hear?”
“Yes sir, I promise. You have my word.” Alexander and Krystina stepped over to the computer to say goodbye to her parents, and the rest of the group flowed out into the hallway.
Hazel and Mark carried two sleepy little princes in their arms and said a quiet goodnight. Eli led Savannah toward the grand staircase to head up to their suite where their son Ethan slept under the watchful care of his nanny.
Before ascending the stairs, Savannah paused on the bottom step and turned to face Eli, a soft gleam in her eyes. She reached up and touched Eli’s face affectionately. “Can I tell you something?”
“You can tell me anything, my darling.” Eli reached his hands up and placed them on Savannah’s hips, loving the way the fabric of her dress pulled tightly against her ample waistline. She represented the epitome of how a woman should look after bringing a child into the world, soft curves in all the right places. He loved her more and more every day and couldn’t imagine how life could get any better than this.
“I kind of liked the way Prince Marcos and Princess Hazel juggled two little boys, and a third on the way.”
“Would you like to have more babies sometime soon?” Eli’s heart raced and he couldn’t help a smile spreading across his face. He’d been waiting for her to choose when she was ready. He didn’t want to pressure her.
“Yes, I would like another baby,” she whispered. Eli fought the urge to jump up and down and cry out in excitement. “I’d like another baby in about seven months.”
Eli’s jaw dropped. Did she just say what he thought she said? “Are you? Are we?” He reverently moved his hands from her hips to her belly in wonderment. He’d just been thinking how he loved the way the fabric of her dress pulled tight against her waist.
His gaze moved up along her torso, appreciating every curve, loving the copper skin of her elegant neck and bosom, the way her raven curls tucked up and around the intricately engraved jewels of her crown, and finally meeting her multicolored eyes.
He said the only thing he could think in that moment. “You’re beautiful.”
Tears of happiness fell down Savannah’s cheeks, and he kissed them away. He grabbed her in a hug and spun her around before resting her back on that lowest step.
In an excited whisper, as if they had any control of such things, he asked, “Can we have a girl this time?”
From his throne on the lowest platform of the marble risers, Eli could see his cousin, Prince Marcos, step into the doorway, his advisor, Alexander at his right side. They seemed to be whispering to one another and Eli felt a sense of déjà vu. Many things had changed since the first time they entered this throne room, and yet much was the same.
The royal family on the marble platforms held almost the same people as the first time Prince Marcos arrived five years prior, but there was no grand reception. Most of the room was empty, including the throne where Eli’s brother, Prince Jared would have sat.
Eli was disgusted at the morbidity of leaving Jared’s throne on the platform. They’d also allowed Ahmed to enter this room as a member of the royal family knowing he murdered Prince Jared.
Eli fought the need to narrow his eyes at his father’s former advisor, who now sat at a place of honor beside his young bride, Princess Nimrah.
Mark maintained a stoic expression as Alexander fell back from his prince’s right shoulder. No fanfare or caller announced their entrance. Prince Marcos and his wife, Princess Hazel stepped forward, her hand tucked in the crook of his arm. Mark carried their baby and Hazel held the hand of their little three-year-old, who lifted his chin with confidence as if he’d been coached.
Hazel was every bit the elegant princess. Her hair piled high in cascading curls perfectly complementing a golden jeweled crown. Her dress was high-waisted and pleated to enhance and celebrate the growing life within rather than attempt to conceal her extended belly.
Mark wore a very formal suit and his full crown, and his boys wore little matching suits. Their progress was painstakingly slow, keeping pace with Prince Aaron’s little legs.
Alexander was accompanied by a beautiful woman in a tastefully elegant evening dress. He tucked the woman’s hand in the crook of his arm, leading her into the throne room like a lady and gentleman entering a formal ball.
A photographer hovered to the side waiting to capture a rare multi-generational photo of the entire living royal family.
As Mark approached the marble steps to the stand, Mark handed his baby to Hazel and gently brought little Aaron to his side. Prince Marcos lowered to one knee and helped his son lower to his knee. They’d likely practiced that move ahead of time.
“Your Majesty, and Your Grace,” Mark called out in a clear and confident voice. “May I present His Highness, Prince Aaron and His Highness, Prince Owen, along with my wife, Her Highness Princess Hazel. I am also joined by my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson, and his bride, the lovely Krystina Clark.”
“Welcome,” King Sayid called out, holding his hand out formally inviting them to join him on the stand.
Mark helped Aaron to his feet and rose from his knee. Before they ascended the stairs, he lifted baby Owen out of Hazel’s hands and offered her his arm to help her up the stairs.
They made their way to the top of the marble stairs, Alexander and Krystina a few steps behind. Mark bowed to the king, as did little Aaron, then kissed Queen Salaina’s hand and coached Aaron to kiss his great-great-grandmother’s hand. Mark held out baby Owen for the queen’s inspection, and she took his little hand in hers, making funny faces at the little prince.
Hazel and Krystina each curtsied to the king and he kissed their hands, then they curtsied to the queen and she spoke quietly to the ladies. Eli couldn’t hear what was said.
Mark held out his hand to help Hazel down a step to her place of honor on a throne directly to his left, and Prince Aaron stood to his right, one hand on the arm of his father’s throne, chin lifted like a confident little gentleman. Mark continued to hold baby Owen on his lap as he lowered himself to sit beside Aaron.
Alexander helped Krystina back down the stairs and led her over to one of the chairs near the edge of the room, then ascended the stairs again and took his place behind Prince Marcos’ throne to the right of his shoulder.
With no more preparation than that, the entire royal family faced forward as the photographer took many shots from different angles, requesting minor changes here and there. One person needed to turn their head just so, another needed to move a hand to an arm rest or folded neatly in their lap. Finally, after dozens of shots, the photographer left the room and the mood in the throne room shifted.
King Sayid was the first to rise to his feet and he leaned down to help Queen Salaina from her throne. From somewhere off to the side, an assistant quickly approached to work with Sayid to help her down the stairs where Salaina was immediately lowered into an ornate wheelchair that was quite literally fit for a queen.
As soon as his wife was comfortable, the king turned to the rest of the group and called out, “Let’s adjourn to the dining room, shall we?”
Sayid shooed aside the assistant and took the handles of the queen’s wheelchair, personally guiding her into the dining room.
Prince Marcos, Hazel, and their boys followed closely behind. Alexander retrieved his bride and took his place behind his prince, ahead of everyone else.
Eli’s father, Prince Omar, turned and met his gaze, shoulders slumped in resignation as once again the king had made his wishes known to everyone in the room.
No matter who had claimed the title of Crown up through that moment, the message was clear. Prince Marcos Sayid was recognized by the king as his successor.
“Did you honestly think I would betray my prince?” Ahmed snarled. No sooner had Prince Jared’s body been discovered in the foyer did Ahmed pull Eli into his office to chastise him for ever thinking he was planning to kill Prince Omar.
“I don’t know what to think anymore.” Eli got right in Ahmed’s face, not controlling his anger. “You have kept me paranoid for years while you toyed with everyone, leading us to believe you intended to murder Prince Omar. I don’t know whether to be thankful that my father’s still alive or angry that you killed my brother.”
“Your brother was plotting against your father,” Ahmed said, his rancid breath causing Eli to cringe and take a step back. “He had to be stopped.”
“He was your son-in-law. How could you kill him?” Eli couldn’t understand how anyone could kill another person, much less family.
“No, he was my father-in-law,” Ahmed reminded Eli. His thinning grey hair and pallid, wrinkled skin made that statement difficult to fully grasp, even though Eli knew the truth. “Your brother was openly threatening my prince. I held him off as long as I could, making excuses, delaying what he thought was inevitable. But he was getting impatient, and impatience is dangerous.”
“None of this makes any sense.” Eli paced his spacious office, his hands in fists.
“Your entire royal family makes no sense,” Ahmed said, settling into a cocky posture, leaning against the door frame, arms crossed and a sneer on his face. “That’s why my plan worked so well. I have stood beside the crown prince his entire adult life, learned all that he learned, manipulated his son into giving me his only daughter, convinced the king to crown me a prince, and gotten away with murder. I am going to be the most powerful king this sorry excuse for a kingdom has ever encountered.”
“You are wrong on so many levels; you have no idea.” Eli shook his head. “You will never be king of Madain Saleh.”
“I have proven that anyone who stands in my way becomes disposable, Your Highness.” Ahmed stood to his full height and towered over Eli. “Don’t test me.”
“I have powerful friends across the world, Ahmed. I believe it is you who should not test me. And I think it’s time you realized that you have never stood beside the crown prince.”
“If you’re referring to your haughty American cousin, you are sadly mistaken. He wasn’t even born in-kingdom. He knows nothing about this country.”
“Blood runs deeper than the location a person was born. This is the land of his inheritance, and this is the land where he will rule. Mark my words, the next king of Madain Saleh will be a direct descendent of King Sayid, not a murderer who manipulated those you thought were in power. You may wear a crown, but you could never be a prince, and over my dead body will you ever be king.”
“That can be arranged.” Ahmed narrowed his eyes, turned on his heel, and confidently strode from Eli’s office, slamming the door behind him.
Eli picked up his phone and dialed his cousin in America. “Your Highness, your presence is required.”
The wedding was perfect. Princess Nimrah was elegant. Guests travelled from all over the globe. Champagne flowed. Delicacies were prepared and served in abundance.
And the murder was planned for that evening.
No one knew who the murderer was… except everyone knew who the murderer was.
Plans had been set in place years prior. Meetings had been held. Troops rallied. Allegiances bought and sold.
Prince Jared placed Princess Nimrah’s hand in Ahmed’s in a time-honored tradition of a father giving his daughter to be married. The smirk he gave Ahmed was almost as telling as the gift.
Ahmed bowed before King Sayid as a crown was placed atop his head and his coronation was complete. He posed for countless photos beside his seventeen-year-old bride, his new father-in-law, who was fifteen years his junior, and his prince, Omar, the man he planned to murder. The man who had been his best friend almost as long as Eli had been alive.
Eli was helpless. He’d warned his father repeatedly, but Prince Omar refused to have his advisor arrested. Omar insisted that Ahmed would never hurt him, regardless of the evidence against him.
That night Omar escorted his wife, Princess Nijah, to their suite with a confident swagger and Eli’s heart ached wanting to protect his parents.
The following morning, nothing had changed. The only people who didn’t come to brunch were the bride and groom, as would be expected.
There was an eerie calm throughout the palace, eyebrows raised, shoulders shrugged, no one wanted to ask the question on everyone’s minds. What happened to the plan?
Eli didn’t want to complain. His father was, after all, still alive and all was normal in the kingdom. The palace staff gradually returned the throne room and reception hall back to their normal splendor and elegance showing no signs of a royal wedding. Guests who had been visiting gradually left to return to their own lands, international relations strengthened.
Business meetings resumed, imports and exports discussed, water shortages remedied, skirmishes between tribal communities resolved. Trips throughout the Middle East as well as to Europe, Mexico, and the United States were planned.
Prince Marcos had not returned to the kingdom for Princess Nimrah’s wedding because Hazel was newly pregnant again—for the third time. They’d waited the minimum six weeks after Aaron had been born to conceive Prince Owen, and six weeks after Owen to conceive again. Mark refused to leave Hazel with two babies and morning sickness just to attend the wedding of his spoiled second cousin, royalty or not.
Mark and Eli had made several appearances together over the past year as Eli traveled the world representing Madain Saleh on the UN Security Council. The world knew Crown Prince Marcos Sayid was living in America to be with his wife and that was an acceptable excuse.
The king and Prince Omar gradually laid more and more responsibilities on Eli’s shoulders as Jared continued to insist he was next in line and his daughter, Nimrah, was slated to become Crown Princess with her husband Prince Ahmed prepared to lead the country as king. Their extravagant lifestyle, traveling the world and partying, drew negative attention as if they were Hollywood celebrities that were tolerated because they spent money and threw lavish parties in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles.
Ahmed frequently traveled back and forth to the kingdom, meeting with his now-former prince, and Prince Omar’s new advisor, Kurtis. Eli was comforted when Ahmed was away, and on-edge when he was in-kingdom, still suspecting he was plotting Omar’s demise.
Three months after the wedding, Jared began holding secret meetings again, rallying his troops, openly stating his son-in-law, Ahmed, intended to murder Prince Omar.
Eli warned his father, again, and his father ignored the warnings, again.
Then one day a scream was heard throughout the palace when a maid entered the main foyer to find a man lying in his own blood, having fallen from the upper balcony to his death with a dagger to his chest. The dagger belonged to Prince Ahmed.
The murdered man was Prince Jared Sayid.
Please welcome Prince Aaron Sayid born April 15th Mark’s text read. Weighing in at 8 pounds 10 ounces. The photo that accompanied Mark’s text showed an adorable little guy wearing a blue cap and mitts on his hands. He’d been posed in the bassinet next to a miniature crown.
Congratulations, Your Highness, Eli texted back. Hazel doing well?
She’s feeling much lighter!
How are wedding plans coming along? Mark asked. Your skin still crawling?
Princess Nimrah is the bride from Hades, Eli said. Although Eli still couldn’t stand looking at Ahmed, at least the murder threats were on the back burner while the royal family prepared for the wedding. There was an underlying thread of tension and suspicion whenever Jared or Ahmed was near. But when the princess walked in the room, they both jumped into action to fulfil every one of her commands. We never should have allowed her to see what American weddings are like. Now she wants something bigger and better. She’s insisting on inviting royalty and dignitaries from as far away as China and India. Oh, and some princess in Hawaii. Do they even have a princess in Hawaii?
Probably from the Polynesian royal family, Mark answered. Have they set a date?
Almost exactly a year from right now, Eli said. May first.
I’ll be sure to add that to my calendar so I can come wish my little cousin the best of luck in her sham of a marriage.
I wonder if my grandmother will be jealous, Eli texted.
Okay, I just lost my appetite.
Eli threw his head back in laughter. Are you still planning to meet me for lunch in NYC next month when I come from the UN Security Council meeting?
Congratulations again, man, seriously, Eli texted. Aaron’s a cute kid.
Thanks, Your Highness, Mark said. See you in about four weeks. Give that little Ethan a hug for me.
Will do, Your Highness. See you next month. Eli tucked his cell phone back in the pocket of his sport coat and got back to work.
“I had a difficult time maintaining composure during our council meeting this afternoon,” Eli muttered under his breath, his voice low enough he was sure no one else could hear.
“What a coincidence,” Ahmed answered, his voice just as low. “Neither could I.”
They stood together in a dark alcove to the back of the cramped meeting room deep in the underground bunker of the palace. The oppressive desert heat from the surface was replaced by a damp chill with the essence of standing water.
Brilliant location for a secret meeting. No self-respecting member of the royal family would slink this far.
Yet here he stood next to Prince Omar’s advisor watching his brother, Prince Jared, relay a passionate speech about the outdated views of the monarchy and the importance of changing the Crown before the king dies.
“I’m not sure what disgusts me more about this,” Eli grumbled. “Her desire to marry you, his willingness to go along with the plan, or your sadistic desires to take a little girl as your bride.”
“The princess is old enough to choose a husband.” Ahmed’s whisper made Eli’s skin crawl. The salt and pepper grey in Ahmed’s thinning hair and the fine lines creasing his forehead were a reminder that the princess should be choosing someone her own age.
“What’s the matter? Been in my grandmother’s bed too long? Needing younger stimulation? You’re a sick man.”
“And yet the ladies fall at my feet.” Ahmed chuckled.
Princess Nimrah’s beauty was unmatched in the kingdom. She could snap her fingers and have any man she wanted. Why she wanted Ahmed was a mystery. “There’s more to this story and I intend to get to the bottom of it,” Eli said.
“I highly doubt you’ll succeed.” Ahmed didn’t turn to Eli, but his menacing words sent chills down his spine. “Three years from now you’ll look back in wonderment at what I’ve accomplished.”
“What you’ve accomplished? I thought this was Jared’s plan.”
“Do you honestly think your brother is smart enough to come up with this elaborate scheme on his own?”
Definitely not, but Eli didn’t vocalize his agreement, just grunted and listened with more interest to the words falling from Prince Jared’s mouth.
“Which side of history will you be on?” Jared paced back and forth across the front of the meeting room, calling out to his enraptured audience. “Who will you follow into the next millennium? Who will be your leader?”
He stopped and pointed to a man in the front row, one of the palace guards. Eli wondered whether his father-in-law, Captain Dumont was aware his guards were down here.
“Will you hold onto the idealistic dreams of an old man as he passes the mantel to another old man? Or will you embrace the new way of organizing this kingdom?”
Jared looked up again and his gaze swept the audience. He raised his fist in a powerful gesture of solidarity.
“We are the young and the strong. We are the ones who have seen what the future holds and can grasp that future. Who here is ready, right now, to pledge their allegiance to me as your king? Who is ready to stand beside me as we take down the old ways and bring in the new?”
The men in the room stood and cheered as one voice. Eli turned on his heel and exited through the back tunnel, not willing to stomach one more moment. As he escaped into the dark, he wondered where Kadin was hiding within that audience, and more importantly, to whom he was pledging his allegiance.
“They’re getting married!” Kadin barged in the door of Eli’s suite, out of breath. He must have run from whatever meeting he’d attended. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees.
Who is getting married?” Eli had barely left his suite in months because all he wanted was to spend time with baby Ethan and Savannah. He came down to his office every day to get a few things done but always returned quickly with a longing to be there for every little milestone. He knew his idyllic world would be shaken soon because he was planning his first trip to New York City to meet with the UN Security Council. But that was weeks away.
“Jared is involved in some twisted plot to marry off his daughter, Princess Nimrah.”
“Okay… she’s of marrying age,” Eli said. “What’s the problem?”
“She’s marrying Ahmed.” Kadin sneered.
“But… but he’s old enough to be her grandfather.” Eli’s stomach churned with disgust. He strode to the door of the suite, glanced both ways down the palace hallways to ensure they were alone, then closed and bolted the door.
“Do you believe me now that he’s involved in the plot to murder your father?”
“I never doubted you.” Eli felt the lie as it fell from his lips. “Okay, maybe a little. How does the princess feel about this?”
“One, she doesn’t have a choice. If her father wants to give her to some creepy old man as a bride, she will do as he says.” Kadin stood to his full height, finally gaining control of his breathing. “But here’s the strange part. The marriage was her idea.”
“Why?” Eli shuddered at the thought of a sixteen-year-old wanting to marry a man as old as Ahmed.
“She wants to help her father get closer to Prince Omar in order to take down the monarchy. What better way than to go through his advisor.”
“And has Ahmed agreed to go along with this plan?”
Kadin snorted. “Who wouldn’t? Have you looked at the princess lately? That girl is officially a woman if you know what I mean.”
Eli folded his arms across his chest and scowled. “Maybe I should start attending these meetings with you.”
“Your Highness, I would appreciate that. I can’t be this go-between. I forget what information I’m supposed to know and what I’m not supposed to know, and who I’m supposed to tell what. You’re the prince, not me.”
This was exactly why Eli had never shared his opinions about Mark with his advisor. He hated keeping secrets from the man who was supposed to be his confidant, but if Ahmed could so easily turn on Omar, who’s to say Kadin might not turn on Eli.
“When’s the next meeting?” Eli’s low voice was almost a growl.
Eli snapped one more photograph and sent the picture by text message to his American cousin. Please welcome Prince Ethan Sayid, born October 15th at 9:52 a.m.
A few minutes later, a notification popped up with a text from Mark. The photo he sent was a grainy black and white ultrasound. Please welcome Prince Aaron Sayid scheduled to be born April 15th of next year.
“Yes!” Eli laughed out loud, startling Savannah where she was resting with baby Ethan in her arms, the heavy hospital blankets draped over her lap. He held the phone up to show her the ultrasound. “Mark and Hazel are going to have a baby.”
“Ah, look how cute he is, the little peanut.” Savannah leaned closer to get a better look. “Our little Ethan is cuter.”
“And bigger, and ya know, breathing oxygen,” Eli pointed out. “And no longer injuring my wife.”
“That was very nice of Ethan to stop kicking and choking me.” Savannah said. “I hope his behavior inside my body is not an indicator of how he’ll behave as a little boy.”
“How quaint,” a sadistic voice preceded Princess Nimrah as she stepped in the doorway of Savannah’s hospital room. “Aren’t you the happy little family.”
Eli stood and maneuvered protectively between Nimrah and Savannah. No way was he letting the conniving teenage princess near his new baby prince. “What are you doing here, Your Highness?” Eli nearly choked on his words, knowing he’d hear from his older brother if he didn’t address his spoiled daughter by her title.
“Can’t I pay a social visit to meet my new baby cousin?” she asked in a sugary sweet voice. Her skinny jeans and high heeled shoes revealed her immaturity in the way she was trying to dress like an adult. In reality she looked like a little girl who had raided her mother’s closet and cosmetics drawer.
“No… that’s not in your nature. What do you really want?” Eli asked.
“What did you name the little prince?” Nimrah tried to step around Eli to get a closer look, a complete lack of tenderness in her countenance.
When Eli shifted stance to keep her several feet away from the bed, she took a step back and crossed her arms, glaring up at him. She had nerve coming here under the pretense of meeting her cousin. “Out with it. What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to remind you that just because your baby is a boy doesn’t change the fact that I was born first and am still next in line.” She continued to insist that the kingdom was ready for the first crown princess. At sixteen she was technically old enough to have a husband chosen for her. If she had been born a boy, and was the designated next in line, they would have already planned a wedding by now.
“We don’t need a reminder,” Eli said through clenched teeth. “We are aware of your intentions.”
“Good, just so we have that straight.” Nimrah started to turn to walk out the door but hesitated and twisted back around to offer one last threat. “As a precaution, you might want to train my little cousin to sleep with one eye opened.” Princess Nimrah flipped her high ponytail off her shoulder and strode from the room.
Eli felt a chill run down his spine.
“Ahmed is in on the plan,” Kadin announced, barging into the sitting room of Eli and Savannah’s suite. He immediately halted his entrance and lifted his hand to his face, shielding his eyes. “Oh my gosh, are you guys fully dressed?”
“Yes, we’re dressed.” Savannah yanked her shirt back down, concealing her midriff from view.
“Hey, I was not finished,” Eli said, lifting her shirt again. “I’m trying to have a conversation with my son here.” He and Savannah were lying together on the sofa enjoying the way baby Ethan kicked every time Eli poked him in various locations around her belly. Every time Eli pressed against the taught skin, Ethan would kick, almost like they were communicating.
“I can come back.” Kadin started inching toward the door.
“Stay, you’re fine.” Eli barely looked up. “You’ve seen your sister in a swimsuit before, right? She’s not showing anything you wouldn’t see on the beach.”
“Yes, well, she’s never been that big while wearing a swimsuit,” Kadin said. He closed the outer door to the suite and hesitantly crept closer to the opposite sofa with wide eyes.
“Hey, it’s not like I’m fat or something,” Savannah said. “I’m eight and a half months pregnant. That’s all baby.” She patted the other side of her belly.
“I still can’t believe my little sister is going to be a mom,” Kadin said, a tone of awe in his voice.
“And I can’t believe after being on this earth for twenty-two years you haven’t figured out yet that I’m your older sister, not younger.”
“I didn’t call you younger,” Kadin corrected her. “I called you little.”
“Right after you called me big, as in too big for a swimsuit.”
“You guys fight like brother and sister,” Eli said with mock scolding. “Now tell me what you learned about Ahmed?”
“He’s involved in the plot to murder your father.”
“His own advisor?” Eli found that hard to believe. As much as Eli hated the guy, Ahmed was faithful to his prince. He wouldn’t be plotting against him.
“I also learned that Ahmed convinced them to wait until the king dies before killing Omar because none of them will be crowned as long as the king is still alive.”
“That could be years.” Eli felt hope for the first time since he’d heard the rumors.
“They also don’t want to bring international attention to our little kingdom so soon after the Sayid family joined the Cohen family.”
“Ah, that is an interesting development, isn’t it?” Eli sat up halfway. “The Cohen’s and Sayid’s have been best friends until now. A marriage contract takes that bond up a notch, doesn’t it? I think because they’re halfway around the world, people forget how much power the Cohen’s still have in Mexico.”
“And the United States Senate,” Kadin pointed out.
“And Jerusalem,” Savannah added. “They may have sold off most of their holdings when they fled to Dubai, but they still throw around a lot of money for historical restorations and major donations to charities.”
“Yeah, Jared would be stupid to stir that pot,” Eli said. He lifted Savannah to a seated position, finally tucking her shirt down over her belly. “Let’s hope all their plans fizzle between now and when the king dies. I honestly don’t want to see my father killed. I rather like the man.”
“He’s really changed in the past few months, hasn’t he?” Kadin said.
“I think he’s excited to become a grandpa, too.” Savannah once again rubbed her belly.
“I know I’m excited to be an uncle,” Kadin said with a smile.
“And I’m excited to be a dad.” Eli leaned over and kissed Savannah lightly on her lips. He gazed into her mysteriously colorful eyes then pulled his focus to her brother. “Although, I fear we’re bringing our child into a potential warzone. There’s more to this murder plot than just the Crown. I have a suspicion that this secret underground society will be the undoing of our tiny kingdom.”
“For all of our sakes,” Kadin said. “I hope you’re wrong.”