Just as they’d practiced, Mark and Alex stood in a small square with Benjamin and Pedro. But this time, Mark and his father knelt before their advisors with solemn respect.
The funeral chapel full of people almost collectively held their breath and there was barely a rustling of paper or a whisper in the room.
Because the crown was already on Benjamin’s head, there was no leather bag or velvet box anywhere in the room. Mark wouldn’t see those until late that evening when Alex would remove the crown from his head.
“Ultima vez,” Pedro whispered, and Benjamin lowered his head and closed his eyes. Pedro lifted the crown and once again it seemed to float in the air over to Alex’s waiting hands. Even though there were no words required for this ceremony, Pedro whispered again. “Buena suerte, Alexander.”
“Gracias, Senor,” Alex whispered back, then turned to Mark with shaking hands.
Mark lifted his chin to meet the gaze of his best friend, who was, with this symbolic gesture, committing his life to service and promising to stand beside Mark presumably for the remainder of their lives.
With resignation, Mark bowed his head and closed his eyes, similar to how he’d seen his father do. With barely a feather touch of pressure, the crown was placed on Mark’s head and Alex took a step back.
Lifting his gaze once again, Mark realized in that moment, he was feeling the way he’d imagined his father had felt that afternoon when his expression could only be described as surreal brotherly love. Mark had wondered if he and Alex would have that significant of a connection.
Now he knew. He had a brother.
When they’d completed the symbolic transfer, the four men stood side-by-side and the people in the room rose to their feet in applause as if accepting Mark as their Crown Prince. He only hoped the people in Madain Saleh were as welcoming.
* * * * * * * * *
Two hours had passed since the coronation and many people were milling about throughout the lower level of the mansion, although the crowd had thinned. Mark realized he hadn’t taken the time to view himself in a mirror and quietly ducked into the hallway off the foyer where he knew there was a large gilded mirror.
He wasn’t fully prepared for the man who stood before him. Over the course of one week, Mark had transformed from a carefree college kid to a regal gentleman. He looked like a prince.
“How’s that crown feel?” a soft voice asked from the doorway. Hazel wore a soft, flowing gossamer gown that reached nearly to the floor. The sleeves were sheer and rested against her wrists after separating with several slits that opened to reveal her lightly tanned arms.
“Amazing,” Mark whispered. Mark reached for her hand and drew her toward him, turning her to face the mirror so that she was tucked into his chest and their eyes met in the mirror. “I wish I could explain it with words.”
She didn’t acknowledge that someday she might find out for herself, just let her eyes wander over the reflection. He thought of a way he could help her understand.
“I’ll show you.” Mark turned Hazel around, so she was facing him, and she lifted her face to gaze up at him. He placed his hands at the nape of her neck and slowly drew his fingers up into her hair as if giving her a head massage. He continued up into her hair as far as he could without pulling her hair or getting tangled. Then he held his hands there and pressed the pads of his fingers around the crown of her head in a wide circle around the backs and sides of her head and just held them there.
The gentle sound that escaped from somewhere inside Hazel was a cross between a whimper and a moan of ecstasy.
As he had done the night before, Mark took advantage of the moment and lowered his face to hers capturing her lips with his while leaving his hands in her hair. Her body molded to his as she pulled herself closer, deepening the kiss.
If they were already married, he would have carried her up the stairs at that moment and laid her down on their bed. But they weren’t, and he couldn’t, and this kiss had to end eventually. He wasn’t in any hurry though, and neither was she.
Mark had no idea how long they kissed standing together in that hallway, holding each other as close as physically possible without removing clothing. He wasn’t sure if anyone else saw them kissing, nor did he care. They all expected Mark would eventually marry Hazel anyway so what did it matter?
He wanted her now. Badly. He was glad they’d both made a commitment to wait for marriage because if he hadn’t already decided, that moment would have decided for them. He forced himself to pull away from her and willed his body to calm down, pressing his forehead against hers and reveling in the quiet moment. Their heavy breathing and the pounding of his heart was the only sound interrupting his thoughts.
I love you, he thought in his head, but didn’t say the words out loud. He didn’t want any physical experience to influence the moment when he finally told her how he felt, if he ever told her. He wanted to make darn sure she was ready for him to love her and be confident she loved him back. Instead, he leaned down and placed one more tiny kiss on her lips and then stepped back.
“Goodnight, Hazel,” he whispered, backing away.
“Goodnight, Mark,” she whispered, still leaning against the wall beside the mirror.
As Mark ascended the stairs two at a time, he sent a text to Alex, Come get this crown off my head. I need to be done for the night.