Note to Reader: THIS IS A CLEAN STORY, although the first couple of chapters are a little intense! -Julie L. Spencer
Chapter One: (POV Character: Gus)
“Hundred bucks says she’ll be mine by the end of the party,” Gus said, leaning against the railing of the back deck overlooking the gardens, and closer to his best friend, Alex.
“What’s the wager?” Alex asked, taking a sip from the red Solo cup of whatever cheap beer was flowing from the keg. “All the way? Inside the house? Or out?”
“Anywhere on the grounds of the estate,” Gus said. “It’s a balmy evening. She might be convinced to take a stroll in the gardens.”
“Eh, whatever you want.” Gus shrugged and sipped from his cup. “Take my word for it, ask her straight up, follow me from afar and watch me seduce her with your own eyes.”
“Gross, no way,” Alex said. “I’ll take your word for it. Besides, her bedroom eyes prompt me to resign myself to the loss of a Benjamin Franklin.”
Gus slammed back a shot of the top-shelf whisky he kept in a flask in his pocket, chased by the last of the cheap beer in his Solo cup, and he stepped away from his friend. “Wish me luck.”
“You got this,” Alex called after him.
Phoebe was standing a few feet away from the keg where Gus was heading. He maintained eye contact with her until the last possible second, then filled his cup and handed it to her. “Will you hold this for me?”
“Uh… okay.” She took the cup from his hand and he took her nearly empty cup from hers, reaching over and holding it under the spigot of the keg.
Gus realized there was an inch of lukewarm beer in the bottom of her cup and paused to empty it into the nearby sink before filling it to the brim. He handed hers back and they juggled for a few seconds to switch cups. When they were finally holding the correct drinks, Gus raised his in a subtle toast, meant to be shared by just the two of them.
“Cheers.” He drank heartily without waiting to see whether she would follow his lead. He knew she would. No girl had ever denied him. She lifted her cup and took a little sip. He smiled triumphantly. “How are you this fine evening, Phoebe?”
“You know my name?” she feigned innocence and held her hand to her heart, batting her eyelashes.
“I may or may not have asked around after seeing you from across the room.” Gus realized his words were slow, on the verge of slurring.
“Well I may or may not have asked around about you as well, Your Highness.”
“Now, now, let’s not go throwing around titles, trying to impress your friends.” Gus winked at the girl to Phoebe’s left. She giggled.
“What are you and your brothers doing slumming it on this side of town?”
“Slumming?” Gus feigned insult. “Logan’s estate is nearly as large as mine.”
“Between you and me,” —Gus leaned closer and stage whispered. “I think the gardens on this estate are even larger than mine.”
“I didn’t think that was possible,” Phoebe said, playfully flirting. “Rumor has it, your garden is very large.”
“Maybe you and I could take a little walk through the gardens and I’ll show you.” Gus leaned even closer.
“I might enjoy that,” she said.
“Oh honey, I promise you will.” His whisper was very close to her ear and she shivered.
Phoebe turned her head a half inch and his lips met her neck. She let out a soft moan in response and whispered, “Lead the way, my prince.”
* * * * * * * * *
Chapter Two: (POV Character: Alex)
“Dang, he’s good,” Alex said from his vantage point on the outer deck. “How does he do that?”
“Our little brother learned from the best,” Aaron said. At the ripe old age of twenty, Aaron was the oldest of the sons of Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh, and would be considered the crown prince, if they still had a kingdom to call their own.
As it was, they had all been born in the United States and their monarchy had fallen into the hands of their corrupt cousins. They were still billionaires, and notwithstanding a throne and a kingdom, still royalty should they ever choose to return to Northern Saudi Arabia and win back the chunk of arid land that was once their inheritance. Why fight for a tiny oasis bordered by the Jordanian desert when the world was their playground?
Their parents had not waited a day past the required six weeks after having their babies before becoming pregnant for the next. As a result, Aaron, Owen, Hayden, and Augustus had been born less than a year apart from each other.
As luck would have it, Alex’s father, his namesake and Prince Marcos’s best friend, had brought forth his only son just days prior to Gus, and Alex grew up as an honorary brother of the young princes.
Alex stood within the protective circle of his friends and watched as Gus escorted the unsuspecting seventeen-year-old girl down the path toward the low shrubbery that made up the garden maze.
Having visited their friend Logan’s inherited estate many times in the past few years, Gus knew the exact route to the center of the maze, where there was a romantic fountain and stone bench just the right size for a late-night rendezvous. Aaron hadn’t been joking when he’d said Gus learned from the best. Each of them had utilized that exact spot for the same purpose many times.
They toasted their brother’s conquest as Gus and Phoebe disappeared into the privacy of the maze. Then their heads turned at the sound of taunting.
“Not again,” Alex muttered then set down his cup and pushed himself away from the deck railing. “You’d think they’d at least leave him alone at his own house.”
“Especially when he’s the one hosting the party,” Aaron said.
“They just don’t let up, do they?” Owen cracked his knuckles as he traipsed down the stairs of the deck.
“Once a bully, always a bully,” Hayden said. “Let’s go show them what a real bully looks like.”
Logan was a senior in high school, just like Gus and Alex. But unlike the popular and handsome brothers, Logan was geeky, scrawny, and heir to the suspected ill-begotten fortune of the late corrupt Mayor Noah Adlin.
He was a good kid, smart and funny, and always willing to host the parties since there were never any responsible adults nearby. His mother’s revolving door of suitors always seemed willing to supply a keg or two and the liquor cabinet had never been locked.
“Hey, Zach,” Alex called as he and the princes approached the small group of bullies taunting Logan. “I see you’re offering Logan appreciation for his hospitality.”
“Your presence is not necessary, Your Highness.” Zach sneered. His buddies snickered.
“Oh, Zach, you are mistaken,” Alex said in a condescending tone. “I am not royalty. I just have friends in high places.” Although only seventeen, Alex tended to take the point position with the older princes. They preferred to keep a lower profile and Alex was a natural leader.
“You mean your flanking bodyguards?” Zach took a long pull from the bottle he openly carried, not hiding its cheap label or its contents. “Can’t fight yer own battles?”
“This is not our battle,” Alex said, stepping closer to Logan and draping his large, well-defined arm around Logan’s scrawny shoulder. He noticed a few of Zach’s gang members took a step back.
“His daddy stole a lotta money from a lotta people in this town,” Zach slurred. “He deserves to know who helped build this fancy house.”
“And you’re just the guy to tell him, huh?” Alex asked.
Aaron took a step closer to Zach, towering over him in a menacing way that Alex knew was all for show. None of the princes would dare lay a finger on the high school kids. They’d be tried as the adults they were. Zach was most likely too drunk to realize that, because he backed down.
“How about we all just enjoy the fancy house while we’re here for the party and we can figure the rest out later, when we’re sober,” Alex said.
“In my part a town, ain’t nobody got no reason to be sober,” Zach said.
“That’s unfortunate,” Alex said. “But it’s not Logan’s fault either.”
All the guys were distracted by an angry girl emerging from the garden maze spouting obscenities at the youngest prince, Gus, who followed after her, frantically trying to tuck in his shirt and buckle his belt.
“Come on, babe, don’t go,” Gus called after her. “We were just havin’ a little fun.”
“You have no right to call me babe.” Phoebe spun around and stuck a finger in Gus’s chest. “I don’t want you to call me anything, you bastard.”
“Bastard?” Gus drew himself to his full height. “I am Prince Augustus Sayid of Madain Saleh and most definitely not a bastard.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Your Highness.” She poked him in the chest again. “What are you? Fourth in line to the throne of a country that no longer exists on any modern-day map? Some prince, you are.”
“I see you’ve done your research.” Gus grinned. “You must like me even more than you let on.”
“I do not.” Phoebe’s voice was shaking slightly.
Gus stepped closer and placed his hands on her hips. His voice was sultry again. “How about you and I head back into the maze and finish our conversation?”
“I wouldn’t go back into that maze with you if you were the last prince on earth.” Phoebe hauled back and smacked Gus across the cheek. “Go home to the desert, where you belong, Your Highness.”
With that, Phoebe spun on her heels and stomped up toward the house. Gus laughed in spite of the growing red splotch on his cheek that wouldn’t truly hurt until he was sober, and even then, his hangover-induced headache would likely overpower the pain.
“Alex, I believe I owe you a hundred bucks,” Gus said while walking toward his group of friends, enemies, and brothers, all witness to his shameful rejection by the beautiful and haughty Phoebe Harris. He finished tucking in his shirt before fishing his wallet from his back pocket and slipping a crisp hundred-dollar bill from within.
“Bummer,” Alex said.
“I’m disappointed in you, little brother,” Hayden said. “You’ve lost your touch.”
“You’ve finally met your match,” Owen said. “The one woman in this world brave enough to tell you no.”
“That, or his biggest challenge.” Aaron raised his eyebrows when Gus’s head turned toward his oldest brother and their eyes met. Aaron smirked. “That’s what I thought. This isn’t over.”
“What’s he talkin’ about,” Zach asked.
“Gus’s got a soft spot for Phoebe,” Alex guessed. “He likes her, for real, not just as a one-night stand. He really likes her.”
“I don’t know what yer talking about.” Gus lowered his gaze and all of them laughed at him. “I need another beer.” Gus turned and headed toward the house.
“And a cold shower,” Aaron called after him.
“Shut up, Aaron,” Gus called back without turning around. All the guys laughed again.
“Aren’t you kinda scaring away the deer?” a snarky female voice called up to Manny resting against the trunk of the tree in which his hunting blind was built.
As if to prove her wrong, a doe that had been feeding in the fallow corn field nearby raised her head, stilled for a moment, terror in her eyes, then darted into the woods to the north.
Manny hadn’t even bothered to lift his top-end Hoyt Turbo compound bow, because he knew the doe’s fawn was resting nearby. Besides, he was holding out for the buck he’d seen two weeks ago on his trail cam. The majestic creature sported an eight-point rack that would hang beautifully in his personal study. His favorite room in their stately home had been built on the outermost wing overlooking the Thunder Bay State Forest.
“My singing doesn’t usually bother anyone this far away from the middle of nowhere,” Manny called down to her.
“Yeah, well, I’m lost, and I was hoping to find someone who could lead me back to Alpena.”
“Found someone, you did,” he said in his best Yoda impression, collecting his belongings and preparing to descend the makeshift ladder made of two-by-fours nailed into the side of the giant tree.
“Thank you, Jedi Master.” Her sarcasm was even more adorable knowing she’d understood the reference.
“Ooh, she’s calling me Master and I don’t even know yet her name.” Manny hopped off the last rung and onto the soft ground, his Danner Pronghorn waterproof boots sinking slightly in the marshy soil. He clipped his bow onto its shoulder sling and started toward the road.
Even from twenty feet away he could see her shiver and her lightweight blouse may have been perfect for the afternoon sun, but the evening was cooling off.
“Don’t you have a jacket or sweatshirt?” he asked.
“I wasn’t planning on being away from the boat this long,” she said. “I just wanted to escape my parent’s eagle eyes for a few hours and took one wrong turn after another on the way back until I wound up here, in the middle of a forest.” She spread her arms wide, the shimmering fabric floating down like butterfly wings.
“Quite literally in the middle of a forest,” Manny said. He removed his hunting vest and sling, carefully resting his compound bow, his most prized possession, in the tall grasses beside the gravel road, and unzipped his parka. Slipping it off his shoulders, he tsked and shook his head. “I hate to do this because you look beautiful—probably too old for me—but still.”
He draped the lightweight camo jacket over her shoulders as she scoffed. “I’m only twenty. I’m hardly too old. You sound like my father.”
“Wow, in all my nineteen years I’ve never had a hot older woman compare me to her father. I’m thoroughly insulted.”
“What’s insulting is that you keep calling me old.” She snuggled into his parka and breathed what could only be called a sigh of relief. Then she did something unexpected. She lifted the collar and inhaled a long breath. “You smell really good.”
“I have never wanted to be a jacket so badly in my entire life,” Manny said.
“All nineteen years of it?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Nevermind.” She stuck out her hand, pulling the too-long sleeve up over her wrist. “I’m Aloise.”
He took her hand in his and didn’t let go. “Your hands are freezing, Aloise.” Manny lifted her other hand and rubbed them between his, moving a step closer. She didn’t resist. “Isn’t the heater in your car working?”
“I ran out of gas.” Her shoulders slumped.
“This is the luckiest day of my life.” Manny finally looked more closely at her face, drinking in the deep brown eyes and olive toned skin. “What are the odds that the not-so-old woman of my dreams would just happen to run out of gas a few feet from my hunting blind in the middle of a forest?”
“And what are the odds that the best smelling nineteen-year-old guy would just happen to be a few feet off the beaten path right at the spot where my car would run out of gas, singing loud enough for me to hear him from the road in the middle of a forest in—what state am I stuck in?”
“Michigan.” Manny’s word was almost a breath.
“Michigan’s beautiful,” Aloise whispered.
“You flatter me,” —she stopped and creased her brow. “What’s your name?”
“I’m lost, Manny,” Aloise whispered.
“I would love to help you find yourself.”
“Talk to him, honey. He can probably hear you.”
“Alex, buddy. Can you hear me?”
“He squeezed my hand again!”
You keep yellin’ in my ear and I’m gonna stop squeezing. I’m joking. You can yell all you want, just don’t leave me again.
“Alex, can you open your eyes, man?”
Why would I want to open my eyes? For someone to shine bright lights in them again? Ah, man, did my eyes just move? I am not opening them. I refuse.
“His eyes are moving!” Gus said. “Alex, can you hear me? Open your eyes and look at me.”
Too bright. What the heck did you do to your face? It’s all scratched up. Man, you’re crying again. Stop.
“Alex, can you say something? Can you talk to me?”
“Did Phoebe agree to go out with you again?” Alex asked, his voice scratchy.
“You idiot! I wouldn’t know! I haven’t left your side!” Gus pressed his face into Alex’s white blanket and sobbed, gripping the blanket like he’d never let go. His words were muffled through the thick blanket. “Alex, god, Alex, I thought you were gonna die. Don’t you leave me like that again. I’m so sorry. I’ll never drink alcohol again as long as I live. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Alex lifted his heavy hand and rested it on Gus’s head. Gus leaned toward his hand and Alex patted his head. He cleared his throat and tried talking again. “Quit being such a baby.”
Gus gripped Alex’s hand again and pressed his forehead against Alex’s and then they were both crying. “Don’t you leave me again.”
“Only if you promise not to wrap any more cars around telephone poles.”
“I promise,” Gus said, pulling his head back. “Hey, how did you know about the telephone pole?”
“I saw it,” Alex said. “Your car was trashed, man.”
“You were unconscious when they pulled you from the car.”
“Nah, I was standing right there, man. Two idiot princes puking, you bein’ hauled outta yer mangled wreck of an Audi by yer shoulders, and mister crown prince himself throwin’ around his title like it was gonna git him outta gettin’ a ticket or somethin’. I never realized how haughty he sounds when he does that.”
The room had gone quiet and Alex looked around at everyone staring at him. That annoying Doctor Herman with his flashlight ready to blind him again, the older woman who called Gus ‘honey’ and another woman. Oh, and Gus. His best friend. Alex smiled at his best friend.
“How dare you!” Maryam pushed Jacob’s chest hard enough that he stumbled backward and almost fell onto one of the deck chairs. The sun shone down on the sparkling white deck of the yacht, but the chair was protected under an awning. Jacob was suddenly hidden from view from everyone other than Maryam. “Who is she? What’s her name? Is she one of the kitchen helpers? One of the maids? Who?”
“Who are you talking about?” Jacob held up both hands in surrender.
“Exactly!” Maryam turned with a flick of her ponytail and stomped away. Jacob wasn’t far behind.
“Please, Maryam, tell me what I did wrong,” Jacob pleaded.
“Oh, so you don’t think it was wrong?” She turned on him and narrowed her eyes. He took a step back; afraid she was going to push him again. She held up a little gray wrapper. “Would you like to explain this?”
“Did you go through my trash can?” He wrinkled his nose.
“So, you admit it was yours?” She turned again and started walking away. “That’s typical. I thought you were different, that you weren’t like other guys.”
“How many other guys have there been?” He hurried after her again.
“How many other girls have there been?” She whirled on him again.
“You,” Jacob said, trying to reach for her hand but she pulled away and folded her arms across her chest. “There’s never been anyone but you.”
“Then who did this belong to?” She held up the offending little wrapper again.
“My brother,” Jacob tried to explain.
“Are you so daft that you think I’ll believe your brother walked all the way across the boat to sneak into your stateroom and have sex with someone?” Then she gasped and held her hand to her mouth. “Is he cheating on his wife?”
“I hope not,” Jacob said. “I don’t know.”
“Why else would he be hiding these?
“He wasn’t hiding them. He gave them to me.”
“Them?” Maryam raised her eyebrows, still with pursed lips and daggers in her eyes.
“He gave me a whole box of them.”
“Why?” Her stance softened a little.
“He thought,” Jacob mumbled, barely audible, even to himself. “You and I might want them.”
“That’s…” Maryam gulped. “Presumptuous.”
“I agree,” Jacob said. “That’s why I told him I will never use them.”
“Well, I’m not planning to do… that… until I’m married, and then once we’re married, we won’t need them.”
“That doesn’t explain why one of them is open,” Maryam said.
“I wanted to see what one looked like,” Jacob explained. “I’d never seen one before.”
“I never have either.” She looked down and scuffed her shoe on the deck.
“There are forty-nine more where that came from if you’d like to,” Jacob mumbled.
“Yeah, he gave me a box of fifty.” Jacob snickered. “I don’t know why he thought we’d want that many.”
“It’s only a four-week trip from Dubai to Cancun.” —Maryam glanced from side to side— “Do you think that’s how often married people…”
“I dunno. I’ve never been married.”
Maryam giggled. “Me neither.”
“Good to know.” Jacob took a step toward her and reached for her hand. She smiled at him shyly.
“So,” Maryam said through clenched teeth. “Can I see one?”
“They’re really gross looking,” Jacob said.
“I don’t care.” She squeezed his hand gently. “I still want to see one.”
“Sure, why not.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be working?” Jacob raised his eyebrows.
She raised hers right back at him with a little smirk. “I was cleaning your stateroom.”
“That is true.” He raised his shoulders. “And you just happened to have a question for me.”
“And so, I sought you out to ask you the question.” With a coy smile Maryam pulled his arm gently, walking calmly in the direction of Jacob’s stateroom.
They didn’t see a single person, crew or family member, on their way back to Jacob’s room. He pulled the door closed behind him then stepped over and opened the dresser drawer.
Neither of them reached for the box; they just stared at it for moment. Finally, Jacob reached down and pulled out one of the rows of five condoms and held them out to her.
“I don’t wanna touch them,” Maryam whispered. “You open one.”
Jacob ripped one off the strip and grasped the little wrapper between his fingers. He found it easier to open the second time and he wasn’t as afraid of the slimy little ring. Until it suddenly slipped out of the wrapper and they both jumped back, and Maryam yelped.
They both snickered as they stared at the flesh-colored ring sitting on the floor of his stateroom.
“You’re right. That’s totally gross.” Maryam put her hand across her mouth to keep from laughing too loud.
“I warned you.” Jacob leaned down and picked it up and placed it on the palm of his hand. “I don’t understand how that is supposed to ‘protect’ anything.”
“You have to put it on first, silly.” Maryam giggled.
“I’m not putting it on! You put it on!” Jacob took a step back in shock, realizing what he’d just said. Not appropriate. At all. He flung the thing off his hand and into the wastebasket. “I’ve never even kissed you before, and I’m certainly never doing that until we’re married.”
“Are you saying” —Maryam stopped and cleared her throat. “That you think you’d like to marry me someday?”
“Yeah, I’d marry you today if I could.” Jacob stepped closer to her now that they weren’t discussing the mechanics of prophylactics.
“Why?” She rested her hands on his arms as he placed his hands on her hips. “You barely know me.”
“We have a connection this is undeniable and unexplainable, and you feel it too. Admit it.” He looked down into her speckled aquamarine eyes that captivated him the first time he’d stood in this very spot and gazed into them.
“You are mistaken,” she said, stepping closer.
Jacob was confused. If she disagreed about their connection, why was she closing the distance between them. “Wh-what?”
“You said you’ve never kissed me before,” she whispered, lifting her chin and hypnotizing him. “But you kiss me every night in my dreams.”
“What a coincidence.” Jacob could barely breathe. “You kiss me every night in my dreams too.”
“Maybe we should try kissing each other while we’re both awake,” Maryam said.
“That is a really great idea.” He hesitated, inching his face closer to hers. He’d never kissed a girl before and he didn’t care if he ever kissed any other girl for as long as he lived. He whispered her name, “Maryam.”
Jacob drew closer and closer to her, his breath increasing and his heart racing. Finally, she lost patience and pulled him to her, connecting what little space had been left between them.
Instinct took over. His hands gripped into the silky waves at the nape of her neck. He pulled her closer even as he pushed her body against the desk where his iPad sat idle. Knocking it to the floor, he lifted her onto his desk, and she wrapped her legs around his waist, gripping tighter, her hands in his hair and down his neck to the collar of his shirt, pulling him closer.
Jacob was reminded of the words his brother had said when he gifted him that offensive little box. You’d be surprised how fast never becomes right now when you’re in the arms of a beautiful woman.
That was precisely the moment the door to his stateroom opened and Maryam’s mother blocked the sunlight, fists on her hips. “Get your hands off my daughter.”