“There she is Collins.” Mark pointed at a small round table where Lyla and two other women sat in the open patio area between the pool and the tiki bar. “What should I do?”
“You flew all this way. Maybe you should walk over and talk to her.”
Mark took a deep breath and started forward. “Wish me luck.”
“I’m coming with you, Your Highness. It’s what you pay me for.” Collins fell into step a little to Mark’s right and one foot behind. “Besides, her older friend is smokin’ hot. You’re introducing me as your wingman, not your manservant.”
“Then I’d suggest you stop calling me ‘Your Highness’ and start calling me Mark.”
“I can do that, Your—uh, okay, that’s going to be more difficult than I thought. How about you refer to me as merely your trusted adviser.”
They were halfway across the patio and Lyla hadn’t noticed him yet.
But her friend did, and she tapped Lyla on the arm, pointing at Mark and Collins.
A strange expression crossed Lyla’s face. Confusion? anger? awe? frustration? exasperation? “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lyla said.
“Ladies, mind if we pull up a chair and buy you a drink?” Mark asked boldly. He swung an empty chair around from the next table and straddled it, leaning his arms against the back, directly across the table from Lyla so that he was able to look her in the eye.
Collins also pulled up a chair but sat in a more conventional manner.
“What are you doing here, Your Majesty?” Lyla asked with a sneer.
“Your Highness, actually,” Mark corrected her. “Your Majesty would be my father, the king.”
“You’re offending her again,” Collins stage whispered.
“Ya think?” Lyla’s eyes widened.
“I realize my proposal over the telephone was in poor taste, so I have come to formally request your hand in marriage,” Mark said. “May I be introduced to your father?”
“No, I cannot be introduced to your father?” Mark asked. “Or no, you won’t marry me?”
“Both,” Lyla said. “We are not in love and I will not marry a man just so he can produce an heir. I really don’t care if you lose your stupid kingdom. I will not marry you, Your Highness.”
“At least you got my title correct that time, Your Grace. You might want to get used to your new title as well.”
They had drawn the attention of every patron in the bar and adjoining pool deck and Lyla’s friends were snickering, the older of the two actually snorted and then laughed out loud. She cleared her throat and said, “I need another drink.”
“Allow me,” Collins said, and waved a hand to the waitress.
Mark didn’t release Lyla’s gaze and raised his eyebrows when he caught the tiniest hint of humor behind her fiery expression. He allowed a playful smirk to spread across his face and he could tell she was cringing trying to force herself not to answer his grin. Finally, she cracked and broke eye contact as she laughed into her hand, trying to cover her traitorous smile.
Not waiting for her to change her mind, Mark rose quickly from his chair and stepped around to her side of the table, holding out his hand in invitation. “Would you come for a walk with me? Just around the pool deck, in full view of your chaperones, of course.”
“My chaperones?” Lyla glanced at her two friends, both of whom were barely stifling laughter. Lyla took a deep breath and growled, then finally slipped her hand into his and allowed him to help her to her feet.
The momentum of standing led her right into Mark’s waiting arms, and he took the opportunity to wrap one arm around her waist, keeping her hand in his other. Not wanting to continue their conversation in front of all their friends, Mark backed away from the table, pulling her with him. She didn’t resist.
“Dang it, you smell really good,” she muttered. “Why do you smell so good?”
“Probably because I’m not drenched in pool water,” Mark said.
“The night is young,” Lyla said. “I could still push you in.”
“True, but then I wouldn’t smell nearly as good.”
“You’ve got a point.”
“My brother died,” Mark said suddenly, feeling the need to explain himself.
“Were you able to get home in time to say goodbye?” she asked quietly. He dropped his arm from her waist but continued to hold her hand as they began a leisurely stroll in the gardens beside the pool, out of earshot but within sight of their friends.
“Yes, I spent the night at his bedside.” Mark had to stop when his voice hitched. “I held his hand…” He didn’t have to finish that part of his sentence.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry I was rude, crass, brazen, and a presumptuous jerk. And for standing you up.”
“Well you had a valid reason for leaving the resort, but I’m curious to know if there is any excuse for your behavior the past twelve hours.”
“Yes, there is actually.” Mark turned, and pulled her other hand into his, looking down into her eyes. “My brother’s widow is trying to convince my father to name her five-year-old son as the next king.”
“He’d probably do a better job of running your country than most politicians in this world.”
“Valid observation,” he said. “But just the same, I’ve been a little out of sorts arguing with my family. I’m sorry if my grief, anger, and lack of a full night’s sleep—since I don’t know how long—has led me to say or do things I wouldn’t normally.”
“Like call up a woman you barely know, insult her repeatedly, and sit on an airplane for eight or nine hours so you can insult her some more and then take her for a stroll in the gardens behind your friend’s resort.”
“Exactly.” Mark nodded.
“What is it you’re hoping to accomplish?” Lyla asked.
“I’d like to make you my princess,” Mark said, then lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles.
Lyla let out a little sigh that was almost a whimper. “Why me? You know nothing about me.”
“I know how good you feel in my arms.” Mark took a step closer and pulled her to him, their faces now inches apart. “I know I’ve thought of little else but you since the moment I saw you, even before you fell into the pool.”
“I haven’t been able to get you off my mind either,” she admitted, gazing up into his eyes.
“Would you mind very much if I kissed you?” Mark whispered, his face lowering closer and closer to hers. “If I ask really, really nicely?”
“What if I say no?” Lyla asked, biting her lower lip.
“You’ve said no to me quite a few times today.” Mark pulled her just a little closer and inched his face lower.
“I’m getting good at saying no,” she whispered.
“How about we make a deal.” Mark pulled back just slightly and cocked his head to the side. “When you kiss me, if you feel absolutely nothing, I’ll walk away and never bother you again.”
Mark leaned closer and kissed Lyla’s neck, just below her earlobe, then moved to the other side and kissed her there as well. She moaned softly and closed her eyes, leaning closer.
“But if you feel the way I think you’re going to feel,” Mark whispered, his lips close to hers again. “Then consider my proposal, and I will spend every night for the rest of our lives making you feel as good as you feel right now.”
Without waiting for any more invitation than that, Mark brought his lips to touch hers with feather light pressure, allowing her the choice to complete the kiss… or not.
Lyla’s hands reached up into Mark’s hair and she pulled him to her, kissing him with all the wild passion he knew she possessed inside.
He forgot, or ignored, all the people who were probably still watching them, and kissed her with his whole being, holding nothing back.
He’d never given himself to a woman before, but he suddenly realized how much he was going to love being married. He could understand how a man could be tempted to quench this passion before a proper wedding because he wanted every part of him to become one with every part of her.
His body was in physical pain and he felt tears prick the corners of his eyes as he stopped himself from kissing her further, and further. Oh my gosh. Mark didn’t want to cry in front of her, or any of the people watching them, but felt so dang vulnerable in that moment.
Mark closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to hers, breathing so heavy he was almost panting or hyperventilating. He didn’t trust himself to speak so he just held her there.
“Are you averse to flying to America?” Lyla whispered. “Because that’s where my dad is.”
“Yes!” Mark called into the sky. “I mean, no! No, I’m not averse to flying. Yes, I’m glad you’re going to introduce me to your father. My private jet is waiting at the airport. Would you like to take a limo over there? Or shall I order the helicopter to come pick us up?”
“Well, I can’t leave tonight,” Lyla said, placing her hand on his chest playfully. “But soon, okay? Within the next few days.”
“Okay, I can be patient.” He gulped. Sort of. I’ll try to be patient.
“Would you be willing to get married in America so my family and friends can all come?”
“Of course,” Mark said. “No problem. My parents could probably even come to the wedding. My father will want to arrange a meeting with your president while he’s there, but that can be done sometime after the wedding, while we’re on our honeymoon.”
“The… president? Of, like, the United States?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you live in another part of America? I always forget there are several continents that are all called America, right? Northern, Southern, Central? Is that right? Where do you live? I forgot to ask. My apologies.”
“No, I mean, yes, I live in the United States,” Lyla said. “In New York City, actually. That’s not too far from our Nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Your father should be able to get down there to meet with the—uh—president.”
“Wonderful,” Mark said. “It’s settled then. Would you like me to wait until your father offers his blessing first? Or would it be okay to give our audience an absolution by allowing me to lower myself to one knee and formally ask for your hand?”
“You are the strangest man I’ve ever met, Your Highness.” Lyla leaned her head back and laughed.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Mark picked up both her hands in his and kissed them gently then continued to hold them as he lowered himself to the ground and, ignoring the dew that soaked into the knee of his slacks, kissed her hands again and smiled up at her. “Lyla—oh crud, I have no idea what your last name is—will you do me the honor of becoming my wife and princess?”
“Yes! You silly man! Get up here and give me another kiss!”
Mark stood and lifted her into his arms, swinging her around as they both smiled and laughed and listened to the people in the bar clapping and cheering. He stopped spinning, rested her back on her feet and before kissing her again asked, “What is your last name?
“Donovan,” Lyla said. “For now.”
“Lyla, Princess of Madain Saleh,” Mark said reverently. “I cannot wait to marry you.”
“Kiss me once more, my prince,” Lyla teased. “Before I bid thee goodnight, lest we get ourselves into trouble.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” Mark said, playfully. “I’ve heard everyone in your country has a shot gun, and I’d like to meet your father without him holding one to my head.”
“You’re so funny, Marcos.” Lyla stopped and cocked her head to the side. “Am I allowed to call you Marcos?”
“My darling, you can call me anything you want,” Mark’s voice was husky, every emotion close to the surface.
“Okay… Marcos,” she said. “Are you going to kiss me now, or what?”
Mark drew his hands up her neck and cradled her face as Lyla closed her eyes, surrendering to one more sweet, soft kiss. He pulled away after just a few short seconds and they both opened their eyes, staring into one another’s souls.
“I look forward to falling in love with you, my princess.”
“Goodnight… my prince.” Lyla slipped from his arms and held his hand in hers until the last possible second as she backed away from him, leaving him standing alone in the garden as she glided back to her friends.
Mark stood there and watched as they gathered their purses and phones and beach towels and sweatshirts and other belongings and started toward the elevator to head back up to their suites.
Before entering the elevator, Lyla turned one more time and waved lightly to Mark. He sighed with cheesy, blissful happiness as she stepped into the elevator and disappeared.