As was the king’s habit, he swept open the door, entering Eli’s office unannounced.
Eli jumped to attention, almost dropping Savannah off his lap. He caught her before she toppled over and steadied both her and himself while trying to mask a sheepish expression.
“Your Majesty, we uh, I mean, we weren’t doing anything inappropriate. I realize how this must look.”
“Your Highness, you are an adult,” Sayid said with a wave of his hand. “What you do with the captain’s daughter is none of my concern. Welcome home from university, young Savannah.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Savannah bowed her head respectfully and kept her eyes averted.
“She is not just the captain’s daughter,” Eli insisted, panic crushing his chest that the king would think such a thing. “I would never take liberties with your captain’s daughter.”
“I would hope you wouldn’t take liberties with any girl, Your Highness,” Savannah hissed under her breath.
“You know I wouldn’t,” Eli grumbled just as low.
“Six months is a long time to wait while I was gone.”
“I’ve waited for you for twenty-three years,” Eli said. “I think I can handle waiting a few more months.”
King Sayid interrupted their quarrel, turning to Mark and Alexander with a wide smile. “Savannah’s father is captain of my royal guard. The finest man I have in my employ.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Savannah responded. “He enjoys working for you.”
“Savannah, may I introduce you to my cousin, Prince Marcos, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.” Eli placed his hand on Savannah’s lower back, guiding her forward. “Savannah and I have been friends since we were young children, playing together in the nursery. Rather than my mother care for me herself, she took me to play with the palace staff’s children. Thankfully.” Eli met her gaze with longing.
“These two have been playing house since they were children, and someday soon we’ll watch them raise their own children,” Sayid said.
“You wouldn’t—” Eli gulped— “Be averse to me choosing a wife who is not of royal blood?”
“You are not the crown prince,” the king said dismissively. “Your bloodline is of little consequence.”
Little consequence? Eli tried to hold his composure at the way the king brushed him aside but found it hard not to be offended.
First, they’d barged into his office while he was having a private moment with his girlfriend and then his great-grandfather had insulted Eli and discounted his importance in the family.
Notwithstanding the frustration, the king had inadvertently offered his blessing on their union. Eli decided to request his great-grandfather draft contracts that very day.
One item of business first; he had to obtain the blessing of the captain of the guard. He sighed and returned his attention to the conversations around him. There would be time to meet with Savannah’s father later.
“Tell me more about these cool linen robes you all seem to wear around here.” Mark asked, stepping closer and lifting the unique fabric between his fingers. “Where can I get some of these?”
“We could take you into the city center and check out some of the vendors there, if you’d like,” Eli said, appreciating the distraction from that uncomfortable conversation with their great-grandfather. “That, or you could just raid my closet.”
“I’d like to buy some that we could take back with us,” Mark said, then glanced at Alexander. “We’d be styling on campus at our university.”
“Heck no! I’m not wearing one of those at college,” Alexander said, shaking his head adamantly. Then he seemed to realize the casual way he was discussing clothing choices and straightened to his full height, lifting his chin. “I mean, unless you require that of me, Your Highness.”
“Well,” King Sayid said with a chuckle. “I’m going to rest awhile before the noon meal. I’ll leave you young people to plan an afternoon shopping trip.”
“We’ll see you at lunch, Your Majesty.” Mark said.
Eli and Mark both bowed with respect to their elder, but Alexander and Savannah seemed to know instinctively that they were not required to bow when the king left the room, like the princes.
After the king left Eli’s office, Alexander turned toward the other three college-age kids. “I am so sorry. I don’t know what got into me. I’m still not used to playing this role.”
“You’re fine, Alex, relax.” Mark laid a hand on his shoulder.
Eli strode over and closed the door to his office. “There, now you can be as casual as you want. It’s just us young people, as grandfather called us.”
“Where do you go to school, Your Highness?” Savannah returned to the sofa where she’d been sitting with Eli and lounged casually, slipping her feet from her sandals and pulling her legs up onto the sofa.
“North Carolina State University,” Mark said. He and Alexander sat beside one another, and Eli sat next to Savannah, tucking her feet up under his legs as if needing to keep them warm. “You?”
“Ariel University, Department of Molecular Biology, in Jerusalem,” Savannah said flippantly as if she knew that was impressive.
“Molecular biology? Dang,” Mark said. “You must be super smart.”
“She is,” Eli said, pulling her hand to his lips for a kiss. He met her gaze and wished these intrusive visitors would leave so he could have her alone again. She winked and then pulled her gaze away
“So, um, Alex, are you related to the Cohen family who used to own a whole bunch of businesses in Jerusalem?” Savannah asked. “The library where I go to college was named by their foundation because they provided the funding.”
“Yeah, Nicholas Cohen is my grandfather,” Alexander said, sitting up a little straighter.
“And what are you studying in college?” Savannah asked.
“I’m learning how to become the advisor to a cocky prince who thinks the world revolves around him,” Alexander said with a straight face. Mark punched him in the arm. “Kidding! Kidding. Geesh. I’m pre-law but considering public administration.”
“Are you in college, Eli?” Mark cringed and Eli knew exactly why. Here Eli had just been bragging about their ability to change cadence when others were in the room and not two hours later Mark had used the prince’s nickname rather than addressing his title.
“No, I’m not… Mark.” Eli allowed sarcasm to drip from his snarky answer. “You heard the king. My bloodline is of little consequence.”
“Well, aside from not believing that for a second—” Mark coughed playfully— “If marrying outside of royal blood means you get to marry a smart and beautiful woman such as the one sitting at your side, I’d be thankful you aren’t required to marry a snobby princess at the ripe old age of sixteen.” Eli couldn’t have agreed more.
“Speaking of snobby princesses,” Eli said. “How are you doing with avoiding my lovely niece?”
“I have yet to see her since I handed her off to her father last night and fled to my suite with a migraine.”
“She’ll find you eventually,” Eli said. “This palace isn’t as big as it looks. I’m sure she knows where your suite is located. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s waiting in your room right now, lounging on your king-sized bed and hoping you’ll make her your queen.”
Alexander pulled a key from his pocket and held it up on a keyring. “I’m one step ahead of you.”
“Trust me,” Mark said. “She won’t sink her claws into me no matter how hard she tries.”
Good luck with that, Eli thought. The princess of Nimrah wouldn’t be deterred by a key and a declaration. Eli felt bad for encouraging Mark into this situation. Hopefully the kid would figure out a way to drag himself out.