“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.