Royal Reckoning by Stephanie St. Klaire
“Why are they all here?”Eli leaned in and asked Carter, who sat next to him.
“I thought we covered this. I brought a team. You don’t do this alone. We don’t go rogue,” Carter said, reminding him who he was now.
“I was a one-man team for years,” Eli argued.
“Well, not anymore. You’re a Keeper and a part of a team. I thought you’d gotten used to it by now. You’re stuck with this shit. It’s not a job. It’s a whole life, man.”
Eli looked around the cabin as the men each took turns standing to stretch after the plane reached cruising altitude. Carter was right. This was a life and not a job, and he saw a little bit of himself in each of the men around him. Perhaps that was what made them work like a well-oiled machine – they shared something with one another. Eli didn’t know what that was specifically, but that it was something between them. He was certain they saw in each other what he saw in each of them.
Some were family by blood like he was with Carter, though knowing they were brothers was new. But Killion was an O’Reilly – the family that started Brother’s Keeper – and so were his twin cousins, Ronan and Ryker, who were along for the unofficial mission despite not working for the family business. They had a bounty hunter business of their own that often partnered with BK Security. They didn’t have time for bail jumpers because they took on the bounties for some of the world’s most powerful villains guilty of the most heinous crimes. Like a couple of bloodhounds sniffing out the kind of criminals with stories of murder and mayhem that was even too much for Hollywood to put on the big screen.
“I’m learning,” Eli said. “Just not used to the likes of Wit Meyer and his urban cowboy attitude. I didn’t mean to insult Coy by mentioning Dillon. She would have laughed at my comment, but here he is with all his sensitivities.”
Carter shrugged. “Yeah. But he’s a good guy who’s been through a lot and lost a lot. Family is everything to him, and I think that was why he fit in so well here. Same with Israel.”
“The new kid,” Eli replied. “He’s quiet. Too quiet.”
“Maybe. I guess it balances out loudmouth Meyer over there with his ridiculous puns and whatever else comes out of his heehaw mouth,” Eli admitted.
“You really don’t like him?”
“I like him just fine as long as he doesn’t talk,” Eli said, making eye contact with Wit as he told an exaggerated tale to the group.
Carter chuckled. “So you don’t like him then. Because he doesn’t shut up.”
“Precisely. Good operative, though. Smart. Just ruins it with that ridiculous accent.”
“This, coming from you,” Carter jabbed. “You sound like an Aussie forcing a terrible British accent that lands somewhere between fake and made-up.”
Eli gave Carter a cross look. “Made-up? Are you bloody kidding me? It isn’t my fault none of you are as worldly as you think. I assure you I’m the real deal, and you’re all about to realize just how real when we land this plane.”
“So, when we gonna land this bird?” Wit asked. “Mind tellin’ us where we’re headed? What to prepare for?”
It was as if he knew Eli had been talking about him, and Wit was inserting himself in the conversation.
“Since you all signed up for this knowing there was trouble, I assume one of you knows where this bird is going,” Eli mocked Wit while looking at Killion to take the lead on intel.
“I guess we’re doing this now, then.” Killion sat straighter and pecked at his open laptop. “Okay. I had a cyber hit with your name all over it, so I did what I usually do and investigated. Only, I came up empty at first. So, I tracked your movement and, uh…your communications and came up with the bones of a case. That was when I got Carter involved.”
Eli nodded. “You listened in?”
“Not exactly. I transcribed the communication through software I…” Killion paused, reminding himself they were interested in the case facts and not how he gathered said details. “Well, yes. I was tracking your movement and had to dig into your communications to collect what I needed.”
“Good to know.” Eli’s eyes narrowed at the idea he was being watched and felt a need to unleash on him a bit, even if Killion was in his business for a good reason. “Do you always watch, O’Reilly? You like watching?”
The group of men picked up on the innuendo and began to chuckle at the comments as they flew right over Killion’s head.
“Of course, I like to watch. I learn a lot that way,” Killion answered, unsure of what they were laughing at. “I’m literally paid to watch. Where else would I learn this stuff?”
“Pornhub.” Wit laughed, earning credit from Eli, who grinned at the comment.
“Are we all talking about the same thing here?” Killion asked. “I’m not sure what I’d learn from Pornhub.”
His response was unfortunate but worthy of laughter that helped level the playing field as they entered what would otherwise be a rather daunting case. Per usual, the joke was at Killion’s expense, but he didn’t seem to care because once he did catch on, he’d return fire in a way only he could.
“Ignore him,” Coy said. “He’s being a jackass. Eli meant do you watch as in, watch people…intimately.”
“Oh. Ohhhh.” Realization hit Killion quick. “No. I don’t watch that. I have a program that does, and it alerts me to the really good stuff. Don’t worry, none of you are ever on it. Maybe you need Pornhub.”
Coy chuckled and bumped fists with Killion for his friendly fire that left the rest of the team feeling burned.
“Anyway,” Killion went on with business per usual as if nothing had happened, “the pieces started lining up, and then I saw you logged a flight plan. I didn’t know how much to share with the team, so I just got them all there and put Carter in charge of convincing you not to go it alone. I don’t think you can do this one by yourself, Eli.”
Eli sat quietly for a moment, sizing up Killion, and wondered just how much he knew. Killion was the only one on the team who had a glimpse into Eli’s real life and identity, and it was only because he’d dug deep enough and cornered him with it. Eli told him what he needed to know, and Killion agreed to keep it between them unless it somehow became a threat to any of them. Killion was a man of his word and wouldn’t have gone to such lengths if he didn’t uncover just how deep Eli’s situation ran and how dangerous it could become for not only Eli but also anyone close to him. Because it had already impacted one – someone closer to him than anyone had been in years. And if they didn’t make it in time, they’d have their first casualty, and the blood would be on Eli’s hands.
“You tracked me to the airfield, and here you are,” Eli said as if challenging Killion, who was in a dead stare with him, willing him to tell the rest of the team what he already knew.
“And here we are, Eli. Ball’s in your court now.”
The group was silent, suddenly serious. They knew they were about to learn something none of them expected to know or hear. That was where they were all alike. It was like they had a sixth sense for this kind of thing. Like they knew they were about to cross into a world they didn’t know existed until now. Eli’s world.
Eli nodded, conceding to Killion’s challenge. They’d come this far, and there was no going back. He’d have to tell them eventually because once they landed, all hell was going to break loose, and they deserved to know what they were walking into.
“It’s Cally,” he said. “She’s been taken.”
Not a word followed, nor did an eye stray. They were all still fixed on Eli as he began to deliver what he’d been keeping from all of them.
“It’s no secret that she and I…” He paused, wanting to respectfully reference her and their relationship. “She and I are very close.”
Again, not a word. Not a single movement. All eyes were trained on Eli and hanging on every word as if they were profiling him and piecing together their own thoughts and analysis.
“I first received a picture. Then a video. They were warnings at first, but before I could get to her, she was gone. We’d had a bit of a quarrel, and she’d left without mentioning it. It wasn’t until she’d been taken hostage that I found out why she’d left, where she was going, and so on…”
“Is there a ransom?” Coy asked. “Is this about money?”
“You could say that.” Eli’s gaze shifted briefly to Killion, who wore an expression of disapproval. Eli was still being vague, and Killion knew it, which meant he also knew the full stakes. “But it isn’t money they want despite that which I have available to me.”
“This isn’t making much sense,” Ronan said. “If you have money, but they don’t want it, then what is it they do want?”
“And who is they?” Ryker followed up.
“Something bigger than money.” Eli stared at the floor, searching for the right way to deliver his confession. “They want me.”
“Pfft.” Wit guffawed. “You? So, you got money, but you’re more valuable than money to someone? This is gettin’ good.”
“You said our…father was in the States as a dignitary when he met my mother. Can you define dignitary?” Carter asked, trying to piece together what was unfolding.
Eli opened his mouth, but not a word escaped him. How could he tell them who he really was and why he was more valuable than money in exchange for Cally? They wouldn’t believe what he was about to say – most people wouldn’t. It was dramatic and far-fetched, the stuff movies were made of. His life – his real life – was something of a dark fairy tale, and he was neither the hero nor the villain. He was broken. He was redefined. He wasn’t who he was born to be. But alas, his past followed him and always would, hence sitting on a plane with a group of highly trained elite operatives on a mission to save not only his ass but also the life of someone who got too close to the truth and became a pawn.
“They really don’t know?” A woman spoke from the back of the plane. It was unclear how long she’d been there or if she’d just entered from the room at the back. It didn’t matter, though. She had everyone’s attention as she took a seat right in the middle of the group and sized each and every one of them up.
She was strikingly beautiful. Dressed in head-to-toe black, she had long raven-black hair and full lips stained red. Her eyes were a piercing blue – the same color as Eli’s – and she shared the same odd accent that none could quite identify.
“This…is…Ryla,” Eli slowly spelled out. “She’s…here to help.”
When she laughed at his weak introduction, her chest heaved and her head fell back in a playful manner. “Right. I’m here to…help.”
She quickly rolled her eyes at Eli and leaned back in her seat with one leg crossed over the other. Her leg bounced to a beat only she could hear, and her finger tangled in a strand of her own hair while she looked around the space and made eye contact with each of the men. It was as if she was leveling the playing field, asserting dominance in an oddly silent yet effective way. Ryla had the room, owned it, and could make it do whatever she wanted, given the response she was getting. A siren of sorts, using her beauty and intelligence together to command the space and their minds as she distracted them with nothing more than her presence.
All but one. Killion. He trailed her stare and saw what she did. A group of ogling men, larger than life, practically on their knees and completely speechless. He didn’t understand it and was confused by it. Sure, she smelled nice, and she was pretty, but the silence she provoked was lost on him, and he shrugged it off. She noticed, and it didn’t sit well with her if her expression was any kind of clue.
Killion cleared his throat, breaking the awkward moment. “This is Ryla. Ryla Clayton. Head of Medaro Intelligence, operating at their US Embassy. She’s also Eli’s cousin.”
“So that was why you’re valuable?” Coy asked. “She holds the key to something big? You’re a means to get to her?”
Ryla laughed. “Not quite. You’re the handsome one but not the smartest one.”
She looked at each of the men once more, then back to Killion. “You. You’re the smart one. I think you’re the one with the secret. Tell them.”
“Well. I only know what’s on the surface. When Eli first came to us, information was nonexistent. His identity was scrubbed from any and all databases. He was a ghost in the wind, just like all of you are. It was clear he was an operative given how we came to know him. I found his resources – some larger than ours – interesting. I also found it interesting that for a one-man operation – a mercenary for hire, muscle for hire, whatever you want to call it…he didn’t seem to have the technology skills one would need to scrub an entire identity. Very few people other than operatives like ourselves have the kind of resources or need to disappear virtually. So, I kept digging. Designed a program… Well, I found out a little more than I think he realized was out there and questioned him.”
“Jesus. Land your plane, Killion,” Wit said. “The pins and needles are hard to sit on.”
Killion gave him a confused look.
Ryla glanced back and forth between the two men, and her grin grew to an adoring smile as she looked back at Killion. “He means the suspense is killing him.”
“Oh,” Killion answered. “Right. I cornered Eli and questioned him. My duty here is to be the eyes and ears for this operation. See things, find out things, anticipate things before they happen. It’s my job to keep everyone safe, and he didn’t seem safe all of a sudden. So, I locked him up until I had answers.”
“Bastard locked me in my apartment in Watermark Tower and tortured me by hacking into anything and everything. At one point, the television was stuck on some god-awful children’s show, and the music he blared through my devices…”
“I broke him after only a day. I save violence as a last resort, and it wasn’t needed.” Killion grinned.
Ryla was impressed and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees as if to hear him better. When she bit her bottom lip, however, it wasn’t hearing him she was interested in. Killion didn’t pick up on the cue, but the others did.
She whispered, “Just tell them, darling.”
“He’s from Medaro. Like Ryla,” Killion said.
“Medaro?” Ronan asked. “I’m not sure I’ve heard of it?”
For the first time, Israel joined the conversation. “It’s a small country in the middle of nowhere, really. Main commerce is tourism.”
Eli’s brow raised as he looked at Israel, surprised by his comment. “Yes. Exactly. Ryla works as a double agent – and I’m only saying this here because I know you can all be trusted. She’s Medaro Intelligence but also works as an ally to the United States government. I called her because she knows Medaro, and I didn’t want to drag the Keepers into personal issues, but since you’re here…”
“Since you’re all here, which I anticipated would happen, we all get to work together,” she said. “I’ve done my research. I know each of you rather intimately now.” She winked at Killion. “And because of that, I feel confident that we will all work splendidly together while our family secrets remain such.”
“I still don’t understand the kidnapping. Why Cally? Why now?” Ryker asked.
“If she’s your girl, I get she’s a pawn to get to you, but…who are you?” Coy asked.
Israel leaned forward. “I knew something was familiar, but it’s been so long since I’ve been there. It really is you. I thought you were too young to be him, but I had you confused with your father. You look just like him. You’re Eli Clayton.”
“You’ve been to Medaro?” Eli questioned, seeming uneasy.
“I’ve been to Spain. Many times. I have family there. And Medaro isn’t all that far. Many Spaniards travel there to get away. Much like the Bahamas is to the States. Just far enough to feel like you’re in a different world, but not too far that you have to travel long.”
“Now, this is getting good,” Ryla said, winking at Israel. “Tell them. Tell them who he is.”
Israel nodded respectfully but looked at Eli, waiting for his cue to give permission to speak on his behalf. The others took note and found it interesting that such a level of respect and honor was at play…over Eli.
Eli tossed up a hand in defeat.
“He’s Elias Clayton Octavio Medaro,” Israel said with a smile. “Unbelievable.”
“The third,” Killion whispered to Israel.
“Right. The third.”
“Okay?” This was beginning to feel like a game, and it made Coy edgy. He was all about facts and details. “Who the hell is Elias Clayton Octavio Medaro?”
“The third…” Israel corrected.
“The third!” Coy nearly shouted. “Who the hell are you, man? It’s the middle of the night. We’re flying over a fucking ocean, not sure which one, but I’m guessing we’re heading toward Spain or the general whereabouts. Can you drop the dramatics and clue us in before we land?”
“It isn’t dramatics,” Eli defended. “It’s fucking serious, man. I’ve changed my identity, became someone new, and that life has nothing to do with who I am now. I’m sorry if wanting to leave that part of my life dead and buried feels dramatic to you, but I’d rather walk into the middle of a pride of hungry lions than discuss this.”
Ryla stood and placed her hands on her hips, clearly bored with the direction this had gone. “You’re all being dramatic. Sweet Israel left out the most important part of your introduction to the real Eli Clayton.”
“Which is?” Coy demanded.
“Heir to the royal throne.”