“How did I do?” Mark asked Eli in a hushed tone.
Eli felt he could speak frankly to his cousin as they stood near one corner of the throne room, waiting for the meal to commence. Alexander and Kadin hovered just far enough away to provide a screen of privacy. “Better than I could have predicted. Nimrah has already requested the seating arrangement be reorganized to have you at her side. Her right side, of course.”
“Of course,” Mark sneered. “I will be sure to offer her my undivided attention.”
“Don’t get caught in her web, my cousin,” Eli warned, knowing how persuasive Nimrah could be. She had more than one man within the palace walls wrapped around her finger, not that any of them would be suitable as a husband. For that, she needed a prince or dignitary. If given the opportunity she would sink her claws into Mark. “And do not go anywhere alone with her.”
“If she tries anything, I’ll make mention of my intended bride back in the States,” Mark said. “The daughter of a powerful U.S. senator.”
“I’m not sure that’s wise either.” Eli pursed his lips in thought. “At least not until the last day you’re here. Flirt with her tonight, then stay regrettably busy meeting with the king and other princes over the next few days.” Eli had already been told that he was expected to be available in his office by late morning because the king planned to personally take Mark on a tour of the palace.
“Sounds like a plan,” Mark said. “I look forward to that anyway. Any advice about my audience with the king?”
“Do not bring up your suspicions about the likely affair between his second wife and his grandson’s advisor,” Eli said.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Mark said. “And what should I know about your older brother?”
“Jared is next in line behind my father, although Nimrah calls the shots in that family.”
“Seems a lot of power bestowed upon a fifteen-year-old girl,” Mark said, creasing his brow.
“There has never been a Crown Princess in the history of our kingdom, and the Princess of Nimrah seems to think that should be remedied.” Eli allowed his gaze to drift in the general direction of where Nimrah was entertaining a small circle of other teenage girls. They frequently giggled and turned to look at Eli and Mark, probably hoping to catch the attention of the mysterious twenty-year-old prince from America.
“Have you considered the claim my grandfather made that he was the rightful Crown since his older brother died?” Mark asked.
So, the kid was finally broaching the subject. Eli turned back toward Mark, took a sip from his glass of wine, and glanced briefly at the crown on Mark’s head. “By de facto bestowing that right to yourself, no doubt?”
“Naturally,” Mark said.
“Is that your intention? To challenge the throne?”
“What are your thoughts on the subject, Your Highness?” Mark asked.
“The claim has merit—” Eli hesitated. “You would have an uphill battle, that’s for sure.”
“I am wearing the crown,” Mark stated, raising his brows.
“I’m aware of that,” Eli said through clenched teeth. “Boldly, I might add.”
“Thank you.” Mark lifted his chin.
“I’m not sure I intended that as a compliment,” Eli said. Mark’s grandfather had taken his older brother’s official crown, the one bestowed upon the crown prince at his coronation. Mark’s brazen display of the adornment at this reception was enough to cause contention and division among the royal family. “I’m undecided.”
“I will tell you this,” Eli said, looking Mark in the eye, man to man, cousin to cousin, prince to prince. “I would stand at your side should you make that choice.”
“I would welcome your support,” Mark said with sincerity, all haughtiness gone from his countenance.
“You would be a far better ruler than my brother, and more honest.” Eli sighed and glanced around the throne room as if he were a stranger evaluating those in attendance at the reception. “I fear for the future of our country if the Princess of Nimrah gains any more power than she already possesses.”
“Let’s discuss this again in a few days after I’ve taken full assessment of the situation,” Mark suggested.
“I look forward to that report,” Eli said, nodding thoughtfully.
Just then the young caller announced that dinner was ready to be served.
“Your princess awaits,” Eli said with a chuckle, not envying Mark’s predicament.
“Wish me luck,” Mark grumbled.
Watching from across the table as Mark charmed the princess was comical. Eli was embarrassed how well the attention was working. He nodded at his cousin once acknowledging his perfect acting skills.
Dinner was followed by entertainment back in the throne room which had been transformed into a dance hall with colorful lighting, Zaffa drummers, Egyptian dancers, and a Middle Eastern Dabke dance number. The palace staff had gone to great lengths to welcome the visitors from America.
Eli was glad this wasn’t a regular occurrence because he was annoyed at the spectacle. After he participated in the tribute dance honoring their great-grandmother and queen, he feigned a yawn and retired for the night.
As he strode down the hall toward his suite, his phone lit up with an incoming text. Aced my midterms, packed and ready to board the plane. See you in the morning.
Travel safely, my love. Eli hit send and knew he’d lay awake in anticipation of holding Savannah in his arms the following day.