Royal Reckoning by Stephanie St. Klaire
“An infant king.”Eli knew it was as ridiculous as it sounded. “I’m the reason she left. The reason she went to Spain on a scouting trip alone. I’d proposed, and she didn’t take it well. She assumed it was only because she was pregnant. I said all the wrong things and ended up chasing her away. She needed time and space to think. Cally’s had her heart broken more than once, and I broke it again and sent her right into the net my father cast.”
“Holy shit…” Wit started, but when Eli closed his eyes and raised a hand in surrender, Wit knew what he was asking.
This was more than Eli had ever shared with anyone about anything. He was private, more than most, and now it was beginning to make sense. They all had a lot on the line and families to protect, but his story trumped them all, and they now understood why he was so vague and reclusive even. His secret was bigger, almost unbelievable, and he knew it.
“I get it, Wit. Please. Spare me the country twang and comparison to Bessie the cow or wherever you were going with that.”
“I was going to say congratulations,” Wit said quietly. “And I think you’ll make a remarkable dad.”
Eli felt even smaller now than he had after reliving his last encounter with Cally. He was doing a terrible job at taking care of those around him and succeeding at alienating himself. “I’m sorry. I…I guess I’m a little on edge.”
“I’ll say,” Wit answered. “But all is forgiven. I understand your boxers are a little twisted at the moment. You seem like a boxers guy to me. You need a little space. Got it, buddy. But remember, I’m a team player and so is everyone on this here air-o-plane. You’re dealing with something pretty incredible here, but you aren’t dealing with it alone now. You have a whole bunch of aunts and uncles on your team, ready to help save the girl, the country, and change diapers when the time comes.”
Eli smiled for the first time in he didn’t know how long. It was so foreign, it felt odd. He knew the weight of the world had been plaguing him for some time, and the burden of such a heavy secret dragged him down. But hearing Wit state the obvious seemed refreshing because as obvious as it was, he’d been blind to it. He didn’t need to carry those burdens any longer, and the team showing up on the tarmac only hours prior was proof of that. He did indeed have a team behind him that was not only one of professional standing but also one that cared about what happened to him and cared about whatever he cared about too. Just like he’d be there and had been there for them…they were on that plane with him and ready to fight for him, for Cally, and their unborn son.
“Thank you,” Eli said.
“Not a problem. And for the record, Bessie was a dog and had a whole mess of pups. Fifteen in her first litter. A real go-getter.” Wit smiled, knowing his exaggerated bullshit was needed to break the tension and somber mood.
It worked. Eli couldn’t help but laugh. “I hope there aren’t fifteen. I’m a virile man of outstanding lineage and incredible breeding, but even I am not as great a procreator as Bessie.”
“I should hope not,” Ryla teased. “Poor girl already has the burden of one spawn of a royal pain like you, cousin. I think it’s safe to say we all know what’s at stake and what we are walking into.”
Nods around the room with muffled words of agreement filled the space. One seemed particularly invested, and no one was surprised. Coy. He’d been in Eli’s exact shoes and wasn’t so lucky. As a consequence of his job and affiliates, his pregnant wife was abducted too. She didn’t have the same outcome they were aiming for with Cally. She’d been abused and ultimately murdered along with their unborn child as a lesson to Coy for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong in an ugly crime ring. He’d made that mistake once and wouldn’t make it again.
As if she understood his pain and silence, Ryla landed a hand on his knee and offered a comforting look that he somehow heard despite the silence between them. She couldn’t have known his story, but maybe she recognized the deep-rooted pain he wore on his sleeve.
“You were never making it out of there alive, Eli,” Coy said. “Going in alone would have cost both of you dearly – the three of you. To be clear, we all go in and come back out and not in body bags. We play this smart. We are taking on an entire royal empire that I’m assuming is heavily guarded, especially given what they’re hiding from you. Can we all agree on that? Cally is our goal, getting her out unscathed is the objective, and that baby is the prize.”
Everyone nodded, but there was something more from Eli. It was the exchange of some kind of man code. One man’s loss would be another man’s lesson, and they’d both find reward on the other side. Eli knew Coy’s story and knew he didn’t have the team he had now behind him. Eli wouldn’t take that for granted because he didn’t want to meet a similar fate to that which Coy had met that fretful day when he finally found his family. Dead. That kind of pain was once unimaginable to Eli, but he was starting to understand it, and he was more grateful now than ever to have Coy on his side.
“Rushing in there hardly seems safe and reasonable, even if you are a royal and have a right to be in Medaro,” Israel stated. “What is the plan? I assume we’re landing in Spain, as you previously mentioned, for a reason?”
“We can’t fly directly into Medaro because it will set off too many alarms and red flags,” Eli said. “We land in Spain and sit on the tarmac to file a second flight plan that shows Spain as our point of origin. It’s common and won’t ring any bells like a flight all the way from the US on a private jet would. They know where I am and where I’d be coming from. I’m sure all incoming flights from the US are flagged, both commercial and private.”
“They’re watching for you. If this is your father, he expects you to come,” Ryker said. “Element of surprise is our first play.”
“Precisely,” Eli said. “No time for a trap to be placed.”
“I set other precautions in place,” Ryla interrupted. “I scrubbed flight data leaving the US before we even reached cruising altitude. We were only visible long enough to get in the air, and now our flight doesn’t exist. When it’s time to return, so will the data.”
Impressed, Killion went to work on his laptop. “Tell me everything you’ve done on your end. I’ll make sure it’s good and buried. Your access will be invaluable to this mission.”
Ryla took the seat next to him and set up a laptop where the two worked perfectly in sync to ensure optimal safety. Eli sat back and watched as the rest of the team went to work on logistics as they gathered information from Ryla and Killion so they could put together their tactical approach. This was what they did. It was how they worked. It was what made them Keepers. No questions. No lines in the sand. Just a well-trained, highly compatible machine that was equal parts operative and genius.
Eli took comfort in it. He ran out of town without a plan, and now he had a mission-ready team at his disposal with intel to follow and protect them. This was his mission, but they took the lead, and for that, he was grateful. He sat back, and for once, he let someone else do the worrying, thinking, planning. He’d be ready when they landed, but for that moment, he needed to let his team take the wheel while he collected himself. For the first time in days, he realized how many pieces of him were broken without her. Without Cally.
Getting to her was his priority, hanging on to her was his mission, and making it forever was yet to be decided. And that was okay. For now. He had a son coming to protect, to teach, and to love. At that moment, he felt something he’d never felt before, and it was that love he was promising his unborn son. He also felt something else – something more sinister and darker – and that was the deepest sense of loathing he’d ever endured. For his father. A man who’d surely never felt any of those things that felt impossible to Eli, but he knew it to be true. Eli would move mountains for Cally and for their son. His father would only move mountains for himself and kindly land them on his own children.
Though he had plenty of years of life under his belt, he felt as though he’d only just grown up. He was thinking of things he’d never considered before. Like being a husband and being a father. His dislike for his own father was ever-present, but after learning he was about to become one himself, something changed. That dislike had grown to something like hate. An instant bond had formed for Eli and his unborn son – an unbreakable bond that he couldn’t explain. A sense of love he didn’t know was possible. A sense of purpose he’d only just discovered.
That whirlwind of emotion left him teetering on the edge, wondering why his own father didn’t have that experience or feel such things. If he had, Eli thought he would feel more from his father than the darkness within him. Eli’s father was only such by genetics and failed to meet the mark in any other way. The king was a ruler, a dictator, nothing more, and he’d used his children for personal gain. Greed.
Eli would be none of those things. His son would know he was loved every day of his life because Eli would spend the rest of his life showing his son love. How to love. Lead by example by loving the child’s mother no matter where their relationship went. Love his boy because he was an extension of himself and Cally. He’d teach him good conquers evil and that no price was worth the devil’s work. He’d raise him to be kind, fight for what was right, defend those who couldn’t defend themselves, and treat women with respect because they deserved nothing less.
Eli wasn’t always good, kind, or respectful, but he usually had a good reason not to be. He’d committed his life to be the direct opposite of his example and succeeded as such. History would not repeat itself with him, and it would never touch a fine hair on his son’s head. If the man wasn’t already lying on his deathbed, Eli would be tempted to put him there. In the name of all that was good, of course.
Cally. She made him want greater things – things he never imagined. Like being a father. She was the good that kept him grounded in the months they’d shared. Though his work was gritty and riddled with questionable tactics, it was always for the right cause, and she made him want to be even better than that. He didn’t know that was possible. He didn’t know she was possible. He didn’t know that his heart could beat for more than the next mission, but for her and the gift she was giving him.
Their last evening together danced through his mind while everyone around him was busy at work. He couldn’t help but go there. He couldn’t help but remember her lying in his bed, sans clothes, cheeks pink with color as she grinned, completely satiated. She’d told him she was pregnant only a handful of weeks before, and he’d spent the following weeks showing her every way he loved her, wanted her, needed her. Seeing her there with a slight roundness to her abdomen and her eyes pinned on him… It was the things fairy tales were made of and forevers lived in. That look. That one single look. He knew then. Knew she was his forever girl and not a just for now. He’d purchased a ring before she’d announced the pregnancy but held on to it until he knew they were both ready. In his heart, he was already at the altar, but in reality, he had a lot of messes to clean up before he made her his for a lifetime.
Seeing her lying there, as she was, he knew forever was sooner than later, and he didn’t want to wait to make his claim, even if he did have to wait to say I do. Eli wanted Cally in his bed from that day forward, his ring on her finger for the world to see she was his. When he took the ring out of his drawer and kneeled down at his bedside, tears rimmed her eyes, but not for the reasons he’d hoped. She’d misunderstood and assumed his proposal was out of duty and obligation. Assumed he’d only just purchased the ring upon learning of their shared joy. Cally didn’t know he’d already planned to claim her as his own and make a life – whatever life they could – together.
His heart shattered, and hers ached. Despite his truth, she was wary and unsure he was making a life-altering decision for the right reasons. She’d been hurt before, more than once, and didn’t have room for any more scars. Cally told Eli she loved him, but she’d loved before, and it only cost her more than she had to give. Their child would know both parents. They’d raise him together whether they were together or not, but he didn’t find peace or comfort in it. He wanted her as much as he wanted their son.
They made love again, and he replayed the scene over and over in his head. It was passionate, endearing, and promising. He’d loved her that night, more than he thought he could, but it wasn’t enough. She was gone the next morning, leaving his ring on the dresser and a note stating she needed time to get her head straight before they could move forward – however that might look.
Cally might as well have been on that airplane with him because he still felt her, smelled her scent, could nearly taste her. She was so vivid in his senses – always had been – it was like kismet. They were meant to be. But now she was gone, and all his fears had crossed oceans and taken her from him. He’d get her back. He’d feel her tucked in his side again, smell her scent, and taste her passionately and intimately because she was the only thing that could curb his desires and satiate his hunger. She was everything.
“We’re going to get her back, you know,” Ryla said, bringing him back to the present.
“Yeah. I know.” His words lacked confidence, and that shook him.
“You’ve got quite the team here. I see why you’ve given up your one-man operation for this,” she continued. “It makes sense to me now.”
“I never thought I’d be in this place, but here I am. I wouldn’t change it now for anything. The work we do is good, and the people are better,” Eli admitted as he scanned the room. “They all gave up whatever they were doing to be here on a moment’s notice without even knowing where they were going or why.”
“There’s something quite powerful about that,” she said. “I have to admit I’m a bit envious. You found a family, Eli.”
He stalled and let her words wash over him. “I guess I did. A very odd, somewhat dysfunctional one, but they’ve definitely become family.”
“The plan has been decided. I’ve made arrangements for things to fall into place before our arrival, so the shift in the air is less obvious and suspicious. Your team has broken up into tactical rescue and a team with you posing as your security entourage. They will serve as your pomp and circumstance that your father is sure to recognize and appreciate.”
“A good distraction. Play him at his own game.” Eli snickered. “Put on airs and play the part of the dutiful rogue royal son who’s returned to his father’s bedside to accept his birthright.”
“Will you?” she asked. “Will you accept your move to the throne?”
“Not a chance. Nothing has changed there. I am simply there to confirm rumors of his health, and I will leave the rest vague so he can wonder if I’ve had a change of heart, and greed has consumed me with the opportunity of personal gain while he waits for the bowels of hell to swallow him whole. He might even die happy, assuming the apple didn’t fall far from the proverbial tree.”
“That was dark. Even for you.” She chuckled.
“Yeah, well…he has something that belongs to me, and there’s no forgiving that kind of theft.”
Ryla nodded in understanding. “Do you think he’ll suspect anything? Why you’re there, that is. For her?”
“I think he’ll suspect it, but as far as he’s concerned, it will look like nothing more than a dutiful son who might be sniffing around, looking. More so, I believe the aforementioned. He’ll be happy to see me return with hopes I’ll claim the throne. He has no idea who I really am now or what I do. He only knows what I’ve let him know,” Eli said through gritted teeth. The mere thought of facing his father had him seething.
“Are you sure about that? He knew about Cally,” Ryla pointed out.
“I guess we’re about to find out then.” He shrugged.
“I have taken many precautionary measures. If things don’t go as planned, we still have a way out, and it includes Cally,” Ryla said, looking at the Keepers.
“They’re all good people. We can trust them. Rely on them. This is what they do. And if we have to change on the fly, they can do that too,” Eli assured her.
“They all do seem to take care of each other. I’m envious, cousin.”
“We grew up learning not to trust anyone, especially those close to you. I’ve learned otherwise since working with this team. Are you considering a career change?” Eli asked.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and just see how things play out for now.” She sat back and watched the group as they continued to work out logistics and their tactical approach.
Eli knew that look. He’d been right where she was before he’d signed on to work with the Keepers. There was something to be said about working alone and doing your own thing – a sense of freedom, really. Ryla had that to a degree as the head of intelligence. Operatives at her level worked primarily alone and played handler for newer agents on lower rungs. But even in that capacity, she was her own partner, cover, and operative.
Eli found something he didn’t know he was missing when he worked his first case with the Keepers as an informant while he was still independent. Because of that, he should have known he could count on them from the beginning, but he felt burdensome. This was his problem to fix and not a company issue. But again, it didn’t matter. Company contract or personal business alike, these guys – and women, there were plenty within the company – were there for each other on the clock and off the clock.
Ryla wasn’t kidding when she said she was envious. Their business got lonely and wore on you over time when there was no one to share the wins and losses. Relationships, romantic anyway, were hard to maintain when you worked in this business. It was too dangerous. This was the next best thing. You don’t exist to the rest of the world as an operative, identity scrubbed, untraceable. That could be daunting. You were literally no one. But being a part of something like this gave you an identity, even if it was still invisible to the rest of the world. His intention wasn’t to recruit Ryla when he called her for help, but now he hoped maybe she’d find something with the Keepers as he had.
Though she wasn’t in the succession line, she was raised similar to Eli with traditions and pageantry alike. Like Eli, it drove her to a different line of work than what was expected of her, which was to marry rich and be a dutiful and privileged wife to someone who added to the family business of royal deeds. They weren’t built for it, and though going separate ways, Eli and Ryla remained close and had each other’s back in an otherwise lonely workplace. Maybe she would be less lonely when all of this was over.
He looked at the ring box, still in his grip, and recognized he was a different man now than he had been when he worked that very first case with the Keepers. He was a better man, stronger man, and had more to offer the world as a team member than he ever did as a lone soldier. Now he hoped the promise in that ring brought something similar to his personal life. Hope, honor, privilege…someone to fight for and love.
Eli felt the landing gear deploy as they entered their descent. They were over Spain and landing soon. Cally was closer now than she had been in days, and being this close yet still so far away ached – more so than it had been. He was worried. Despite that distraction, he was ready to do what was needed. He put the ring back in his bag and began to unpack his gear and ready for the mission ahead of them. While they sat on the tarmac in Spain, creating their faux origination flight, he’d get up to speed with the team and ready himself for the next step…to bring Cally home.