“They got the mechanic from the garage before I could get to him.”
Constantin cursed under his breath and hurried to the bar in his study to pour himself a drink.
“What about the one from the hotel?” Constantin asked. “You told me you took care of him.”
“I did. We paid him off and made sure he left the country. We’re running out of space to maneuver. We might have to leave too. It’s gory business murdering a Prince of the Realm.”
“We haven’t even had the state funeral yet,” Constantin pointed out. “What about the other guy? The one you’d scouted before?
“You will soon. In case you haven’t noticed, the authorities are going nuts about losing a prince under their care. We need to lay low right now. No more dead bodies. Send our money, Constantin. We need it if we’re to survive this. You’d better do it now!”
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do when you’ve messed up every step of this,” Constantin said, ending the call.
He tossed back a shot of scotch and stood staring at the painting of his father hanging above the bar.
“This is your fault. You’re the reason our position is in danger, the only reason I needed to do this. Why do you have to screw up everything? Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Pouring a second drink, Constantin tossed it back and slammed the glass on the counter. He needed to find his grandmother and make nice.
She had no choice now. Leon was gone; there was only his father and him. If the investigators proved his father guilty, Her Majesty would need to choose him, Prince Constantin, as the Crown Prince. Once he was Crown Prince, he’d clean up the mess he’d made with this plan. He’d leave no traces of his past misdeeds.
Constantin smiled in satisfaction and adjusted his suit jacket. If he hurried, he’d make it to dinner with Queen Amethea.
Amethea took no pleasure in watching Leon’s most trusted friends enter her greeting room in their tailored dark suits. Riku, the shortest of the five men, had red eyes from his tears, his face pale with grief. The man walking right next to Riku was Petr. He was the most impressive of the bunch. His resources rivaled that of a small country. She’d been proud of Leon for making such a powerful friend and ally.
Behind them was Anselm, the son of a Spanish Don, he might as well have been a prince as well. She remembered that Anselm had gifted Leon a horse for his birthday this year. The gesture was enough for her to know that Anselm knew her grandson’s heart. Then there was Paul, the one who shared Leon’s love for riding horses. Leon never stopped talking about Paul’s parents or their home in Ireland, until Amethea was tempted to visit.
Then, last and most dear, was David Corentin. A son of Aeras, his family well respected for their contributions in the agriculture and food sustainability sector in the country. David and Leon were childhood friends, best friends in the purest form.
“Your Majesty,” they greeted in unison when they reached her.
Amethea pulled each one into a tight hug, patting their backs. When she reached Riku, the tears in his eyes spilled over, and she held him longer. He was devastated at the loss of Leon, seeing it broke her heart. She had not meant to harm anyone, only to protect.
“I’m so grateful for you. You make his life colorful,” she said, leading Riku to sit on the couch with her. She held Riku’s hand and waited as he wiped his tears away.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Your Majesty,” Riku said, his voice raw with grief.
“Oh, Riku.” Amethea soothed, wishing she could end the farce.
As it was right now, she had no power to end it. Leon’s life would still be in danger if she tried. The investigation was at its most intense, she could only try to be there for Leon’s friends.
“Why don’t we talk of the happy times?” Amethea suggested. “Tell me, when you went on a tour across Europe, how was Leon then? Was he happy?”
Riku gave her a ghost of a smile.
“He was very happy,” Riku said. “Happy enough to almost run through an eight hour hike in Norway.”
“I’ve always been curious about his time away. He never showed me pictures,” Amethea complained. “His mom had promised them, but when Leon came back, he never granted me that joy. I wonder now if I might see them, or you can tell me about the trip instead.”
“I have pictures,” Petr offered. “Leon made sure we got them each step of the way. He was inseparable from his camera.”
“I remember,” Amethea said, indicating for them to sit around her. “Do you save them on your phone? Maybe, you can show me. Olivier is there a way to set it up so we can all enjoy it?”
Olivier hurried out and Petr got his phone ready to show her the pictures from their six-month trip.
Constantin arrived at Amethea’s residence late. He remembered Olivier talking about setting up a family dinner tonight. It was supposed to be a somber affair in memory of Leon. Constantin expected to find his stepsister alone with the queen. His dad would not dare show up for the dinner, and his stepmother followed Isaak’s decisions to the letter. Constantin was hoping to charm his grandmother through the evening, make her look at him different.
Constantin stopped outside his grandmother’s greeting room when he heard her laugh. Shocked, he hurried to the door into the elegant room and peeped inside. He watched Amethea smile as she looked at pictures of Leon with his friends on an overhead screen. The room was filled with warmth. Olivier had staff moving around Leon’s friends serving food and drinks. The scene was cozy. Nothing like what he got even when Amethea was in a good mood. He couldn’t remember ever laughing with his grandmother so openly. Yet, Leon’s elitist friends were cracking up as they narrated stories behind the pictures.
“I remember this one,” Anselm Leandro, the Spanish brat said, his accent so thick. “We had just made a wrong turn in Belgium. David was the navigator, while Paul was driving. We stopped on the side of the road to get our bearing. Leon and Petr went exploring. They ended up sliding into a very muddy ditch.”
“David took the photo of course,” Petr said, with a smile, nodding to the photo of him and Leon covered in mud from head to toe.
“I haven’t seen a smile like that on Leon’s face in a long time,” Amethea said, staring at the photo.
The picture changed and Amethea gasped in wonder at the captured moment on the overhead screen. It was of Leon and Logan caught in the rain at the beach in Phuket, Thailand. Leon laughing as he held his hands up over Logan’s head as though to shield him from the rain. Leon stood on his toes to do it, while Logan held him steady. They looked happy and very much in love.
“That’s Logan,” Riku said, his tone gentle. “Leon’s first love.”
“His only one,” Petr added.
“We can say that I guess,” David agreed. “This was in Thailand, at the beach in Phuket. It rained one evening and we all got wet.”
“I took this picture.”Riku smiled. “They were so handsome together, I couldn’t resist.”
“I know him,” Amethea said, her tone quiet. “Logan Mason, he is a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy SPOC team. He’s working under Commander Stevens. I wish I had seen this picture before I met him. He must have thought me cold to him.”
“Logan was important to Leon,” Anselm said, “important enough to think of Logan as Leon’s life partner.”
Amethea pulled her gaze away from their picture to look at the five friends.
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
“Allow Logan in to see Prince Leon,” Paul made the request. “He’s one of us. He loved Leon more than we ever could.”
Amethea’s expression softened and she hid a smile as she turned back to the photo.
“I’ll consider your request. Petr, send this picture to me,” Amethea said. “Olivier, frame it, will you?”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Olivier said.
“Are there more?” Amethea asked, looking at Petr. “I do so love a good romance story. The last great one near me was Kleopas and Anastasia. I’m excited to discover Leon has one too.”
Petr grinned and the pictures continued.
Constantin stepped away from the door, feeling left out. He would never understand his grandmother’s obsession with that halfwit Leon. Seeing Leon’s friends here truly cemented the fact that Leon was dead.
Well, he had time now, Constantin decided. After Leon’s funeral, the palace would be back to normal. He would get his grandmother back.
Leon zipped up the dark jacket Shirley handed him and adjusted the hood over his head. It was nine o’clock in the night. Once again, he was in a black SUV with tinted windows racing through the streets of the Capital headed to town known simply as The Glades. The Glades was a picturesque town neighboring the capital.
Leon had not had a reason to visit The Glades before, but he had seen them as he passed through on the main highway. Now, here he was going to The Glades because of a terrible plot.
This was his second night away from Castle Arguro. A little over twenty-six hours since a man, who was now dead, had tried to shoot him to death. Leon sighed and looked at Shirley and Tom who sat in the front of the car. They both looked like they hadn’t gotten any sleep in those twenty-six hours.
Leon turned to his left and smiled at the sight of Logan, his own personal knight.
Logan made it all bearable.
“What do we expect to find?” Leon asked, when Logan glanced at him.
“The team Shirley sent ahead when we first got the intel captured one woman. She’s in custody on site and Commander Steele is already interrogating her.”
“Why do you need me there?” Leon asked, curious as to why they hadn’t just sent him the information as they’d done for all the others. Being out of the hotel increased his chances of discovery before they could catch the culprit.
“There are items onsite that we need you to look at,” Tom said from the driver’s seat. “There is a lot of content on the royal family that would take months to sift through.”
Leon frowned, meeting Logan’s worried gaze.
“There might be a second attack planned,” Logan said, holding Leon’s gaze.
“Surely, not on me,” Leon said, with a small smile. “You’ve already declared me dead. Dax is in tears planning a fake funeral.”
“Not on you,” Logan said, his tone enough to send a shiver through Leon. “The attack might be on Her Majesty, Queen Amethea. The man Petr sent to the police station said he saw a palace map at the house. He said they have an inside man at the palace.”
Leon sat back and breathed out fear.
“Then, we should hurry,” Leon said after a moment, meeting Tom’s gaze in the rear view mirror.
Tom adjusted his seatbelt and increased speed. They finished a forty-five minute journey in just under thirty minutes. Tom drove up a long gravel drive to a ranch house set up in what looked like an overgrown orchard. There were two white tents set up outside, and Royal Navy SPOC vehicles parked in every corner.
Logan handed Leon a pair of reading glasses as Tom drove their car past the tents and cars, only stopping when they reached the door into the ranch house. Shirley got out of the car first.
Leon wore the reading glasses and grinned at Logan. They were meant to add to his disguise.
“How do I look?”
“Sexy,” Logan teased, making Tom chuckle and turn off the car with a knowing look.
Leon got out of the car when Shirley opened the door for him, and headed into the ranch house without waiting. Shirley led the way to a room at the back of the house, near the kitchen. Forensic officers were already at work, taking photos of everything, even as they left the pinned articles and pictures intact on the wall, and board.
Leon paused at the entrance when he saw his profile picture crossed out with red marker. Above it, were two more crossed out pictures, they were of his parents.
Logan placed assuring hands on his shoulders and urged Leon inside the room.
“The woman in custody won’t talk. However, some of these photos are not available in the public domain. They were taken in the palace at private moments,” Commander Steele said, coming in after Logan. “We’re hoping Your Highness will recognize when they were taken, as they are of your parents.”
Leon moved to the board pinned with clippings of articles about his parents’ funeral. More about his own social calendar, and the hotel opening. Leon touched a photo of his mother crouched among children at an orphanage. She was smiling, holding a little girl against her bosom. God, he missed her. Trailing fingers over her smile, he looked at the other pictures alongside the articles. They were so many of his parents and him. There were also pictures of staff at Castle Arguro before, and after his parents. He paused when he found a picture of Pierre with a black circle around his head.
“He was the weak link,” Logan said, coming to stand beside him. “He had too much to gain from betraying you.”
“Dax has an X on his face like me,” Leon said, touching Dax’s picture, which was crossed out in black.
“His ties to Her Majesty left him invulnerable,” Logan said. “Otherwise, they would have found a way to reach you through him.”
“Thank God for that small mercy,” Leon said, shaking his head.
Leon started to turn away only to stop when he saw a picture he’d never seen before. It was of his parents in the inner palace outside his grandmother’s private study. His mother held her phone and a pair of sunglasses in one hand, while his father had his hand at the small of her back. They looked in deep conversation. Leon frowned reaching for the photograph.
“This picture,” Leon said. “My parents are dressed casual. This rarely happened when they were going to see grandmother. Do you have my phone?”
Logan narrowed his gaze at him.
“I’m not going to call my friends. I need to check something. Mom sent me pictures when I was away. Remember? They had also taken a trip to Paris at the time. I saved those photos on my phone.”
Logan reached into his pocket and got Leon’s phone out.
“You’ve had it the whole time,” Leon accused, taking it and unlocking it with his thumb. He avoided all his social media notifications and went straight to his gallery. “You could have just let me have it.”
“You would have called Riku, or Petr,” Logan said, folding his arms against his chest. “I’m not so sure you won’t right now.”
Leon looked up to find Logan watching him like a hawk. He chuckled and shook his head.
“It’s sexy that you know me so well,” Leon said, sifting through the pictures in his gallery.
“Is there a thing between you two?” Shirley asked, coming to stand next to Logan. Tom who also had the same expectant look joined her. “I mean, I’m not against it, I just need to know.”
“And if there is?” Leon asked, shooting a glance at Shirley and Tom as he searched for the folder he needed.
“Wow!” Shirley covered her mouth and Tom whistled.
“Logan, you lucky bastard,” Tom said.
Leon chuckled when he saw Logan blush and shift away when Shirley punched his left arm.
“Actually,” Leon said, finding the folder with his parents’ photographs on his phone. “I like to think that I’m the lucky one.”
Shirley and Tom stopped ribbing Logan and turned to look at Leon in surprise.
Logan couldn’t stop smiling, and had to turn away when Shirley and Tom cleared their throats and shifted away from him.
“I knew there was something about this photo,” Leon said, finding the pictures his mother had sent him on their trip back from Paris to meet his grandmother. “Look, they’re in the same clothes they wore when they landed from Paris.”
“What does this mean?” Shirley asked, taking the photo from Leon, while Logan took the phone back to study the photos from Anastasia.
“The pinned photo was taken at close range. My parents are standing in the inner palace; my grandmother’s private residence where only family has access with invitation.”
“Oh!” Tom took the photo from Shirley and hurried off to the forensics team.
“We would never have known that,” Shirley said, staring at the pictures on Leon’s phone. “My God someone close to Her Majesty would need to have taken this photo.”
“If not staff, then family,” Logan stated the fact that worried Leon.
Leon nodded and turned to the board with a million clippings of his family.
“You were right, Logan,” Leon said. “It’s all connected: my parents, the attempts on my life, and grandmother’s intention to name an heir to the throne.”
Logan started sifting through the photos on the board.
“Shirley, find the ones taken in the inner palace. They’re the most likely to lead us to the culprit. We need absolute proof. Absolute, or else this will turn into a dead end,” Logan advised as they got to work.
“Your parents visited the palace five times before their death,” Logan said, pointing to the different photos now set out on a dining table, still at the ranch house. “Each time, our man here has taken photos of them and sent to the woman in interrogation.”
Leon hadn’t known his parents visited the palace so much after their return from Paris. Logan could see that the photos of Leon’s parents shook him. The need to keep the photos was strong. He could see it in Leon’s eyes. It was too bad that the person who wanted Prince Kleo and his wife dead had taken them.
Prince Isaak, Logan guessed, though no one dared mention his name, not without proof.
“Do you have a name for her?” Leon asked, sitting down on a high stool and leaning his elbows on the table. His gaze remained fixed on his parents photos.
“Not yet, we’re running her fingerprints across databases. She’s not been convicted before, and refuses to talk.”
“Can I meet her?” Leon asked, surprising Logan.
“Leon,” Logan started to protest.
“I want to face the woman who marked my face off a board. She thinks I’m dead. Imagine her surprise when she sees me alive and well,” Leon said with a chuckle. “I’m not below deriving some pleasure from that. I can afford that much, can’t I?”
“Are you sure of this?” Logan asked.
“I’m suddenly very angry, Logan,” Leon said, picking up a photo of his mother touching his grandmother’s arm as she talked to Amethea. “I need a face to direct that anger.”
Logan held Leon’s gaze for a moment, and then nodded his agreement. Commander Steele accompanied Leon and Logan into the empty bedroom they were using as an interrogation room. Leon did not balk at the sight of the woman handcuffed to a metal chair in the middle of the room. She was in her early thirties, dressed in jeans and an old green sweater, her black hair in a messy braid. She was handcuffed to the chair with no room left to wriggle.
She kept her head down when they came in. . She refused to look up even after Leon sat in the chair facing her.
Logan stood to Leon’s right, while Commander Steele stood to his left.
Leon sat in silence for a minute, letting it fill the room. Logan wondered what he was thinking, but he didn’t have to wait long.
“I have never seen you before,” Leon said. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to you. I certainly don’t know anything about you,” Leon said, making the woman lift her head up in surprise.
She stared at Leon in shock.
Leon continued ignoring her surprise.
“I spent most of my time in schools abroad. I only came back because my parents died. So you see why I don’t remember you if we have met. I don’t remember if I ever offended you, or if my parents might have wronged you.”
Leon stopped, and looked around the plain room. He took in a deep breath and breathed out slow.
“But, I’ll confess something I’ve discovered about myself in the last few hours. It surprised me you see, but it was so clear just now as I stared at pictures of my parents that I’ve never seen. I have an extremely petty side,” Leon said, as though amazed by this revelation. “I don’t think I’ll be like my grandmother at all. I have no ounce of grace at this moment. I can’t stop feeling angry or overwhelmed by thoughts of revenge.”
“Prince Leon,” the woman murmured.
“You know, I endured it when it was just me, but then you had to go and touch my oldest friend, dared put him in a hospital with poison.” Leon shook his head with a hiss. “You made me watch my chosen partner shield me from bullets. My friends are shedding tears because they think I’m dead. Ah, I suddenly discover that I’m quite capable of holding a very deep grudge.”
Leon clasped his hands on his lap and leaned forward, meeting the woman’s wary gaze.
“Now that you know what I’m like, what I feel when I look at you,” Leon said. “What do you think should happen next?”
The woman kept watching him, not speaking.
Leon sat back and smirked.
“You tried to kill me,” Leon said. “I’ve made the world think you’ve accomplished your task. Doing that has embarrassed these two men standing on either side of me. They work for the most powerful woman in this kingdom. Do you think your master can protect you after this? Do you think he has the power to touch me at this moment? I must have looked helpless before. Do I seem that way now?”
“I’m not alone,” the woman said, her tone flat. “There are others.”
“Oh, I know that too well,” Leon scoffed. “You’ve even pulled good people into your stupid plan. A young man I cared about will lose his future this night because you dared entice him with money.”
“It’s not my fault Pierre needed money.”
“I’m glad you know his name,” Leon said. “What’s yours? I think you owe me that much. I should know the name of the woman who helped plan my assassination.”
“Maggie Veil,” she said with pride. “I’m not ashamed of my part in this. It was my sober decision.”
“I imagine,” Leon said with a slight nod. “Who is behind you, Maggie Veil? What did they use to buy your sober decision?”
Maggie stared at Leon for a long moment, before she looked down at the floor.
“Have you caught Warren?”
Logan answered that question for Leon.
“Warren tried to run when the police arrived to arrest him. He got shot in the leg and is in surgery.”
“Stupid bastard,” Maggie said.
“Who is Warren to you?” Leon asked, curious.
“My husband, he was the muscle in the game, I was the thinker,” Maggie said, pride coloring her voice. “I’ll admit that you’re a hard target to kill, Your Highness. You had me frustrated more times than I cared to admit.”
“Did I?” Leon mused. “Well, your husband is in hospital, and you’re tied to a chair. Should we say I’ve won?”
“Not yet,” Maggie said with a small smirk. “You’ve lived outside the palace too long, Prince Leon. The people behind me are too invested.”
“More than one?” Logan asked.
“Royals are unpredictable that way.” Maggie mused. “They’re both greedy, and double hired me and my husband. The first job was to take care of your parents. We used a proxy but your boyfriend there arrested him a few weeks ago. It set us back, when we had just landed a new opportunity.”
“Who is behind you?” Leon asked again.
“Two princes,” Maggie smiled.
“Name them,” Leon ordered.
“Do I need to?” Maggie asked. “It should be obvious to you. You should know, if they discover Pierre is arrested then poor Queen Amethea is in trouble. Prince Isaak believes he can persuade her to write a will in his favor, with the right motivation. Constantin is fucked up enough to forge that will and kill Amethea. It won’t matter what you do here. My goal is still accomplished, and the throne will remain with those in the palace. I win, Prince Leon.”
Leon got up and left the room without another word.
Logan followed Leon out, leaving Commander Steele to deal with Maggie Veil. He had to run after Leon, catching him right before he stepped out of the house without the hood of his jacket over his head. Taking Leon’s arm, Logan dragged Leon into a supply closet and pressed him against the wall.
“Where are you going?” Logan asked.
“Driving to the palace to meet my uncle and cousin,” Leon said, shaking with anger. “I’ll ask them why my parents had to die. If they stayed still the crown would be theirs, why did they need to involve my family? Why did they have to turn me into a desperate man?”
“Don’t stop me, Logan. I’ve had enough of this. I can’t believe Grandmother is in trouble now.”
“I’ll go be with her,” Leon said, pushing Logan away, and reaching for the door handle. He started to open the closet. “If Isaak and Constantin want to shoot us both for the crown, then they should do it to our faces.”
“Will you stop pissing me off? You’re so doom’s day-ish,” Logan said closing the closet door and pressing Leon against the wall again. “Take a moment to breath.”
“You’re trying to delay me.”
Leon tried to push Logan away so that he could go out.
“You are,” Leon accused, reaching for the string between them in frustration. He tagged it and filled the small space with light. “If we’re staying in here, we should at least have light.”
Logan sighed in exasperation.
“You can’t go to the palace alone, Leon. It’s stupid, and you know that,” Logan said, as Leon leaned on the wall and folded his arms against his chest in momentary defeat. “We need to do this smart. I’ll take you to the palace.”
“Sane people would run the other way,” Leon said, looking at Logan.
Logan smiled and pinched Leon’s cheek, a gentle touch really.
“I’m not sane,” Logan said.
Logan reached into his pocket and pulled out the silver key Amethea had given him. He opened his palm to show Leon.
“Now, you just need to tell me where this key goes.”
Leon straightened up and grabbed Logan’s wrist, staring at the key.
“You’ve met her!” Leon grinned, looking relieved. “You’re so caught, Logan. We need to get back to Castle Arguro. Bring Shirley and Tom, no one else.”
“It will be hard to turn away the Commanders.”
“I’ll have them bring the cavalry to the palace gates the usual way. We need to be fast about this,” Leon said. “Granny is the last sane family I have.”
“What about Gia?” Logan asked.
“I don’t know about her yet,” Leon sighed. “Two from her family have become certifiable. I’m so angry with her family; it will take me a while.”
“Can we leave the closet now?” Logan asked, amused. “You won’t run off without thinking again?”
Logan pulled the hood over Leon’s head. “You’re still dead to the world. Try not to shock them.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Leon said as Logan opened the closet door. They stopped short when they found Shirley, Tom and Commander Stevens waiting.
“What?” Leon asked after a minute. “We needed privacy. You guys are all up in my business, all the time.”
Shirley bit back a laugh. Tom burst out laughing, while Commander Stevens turned away from them to hide his reaction.
“We gotta go. Shirley, Tom, you guys take Leon out,” Logan said, taking Commander Stevens arm and pulled him aside to explain Leon’s plan.
At around eleven in the evening, Petr started to log out of his photo account, as they got ready to leave the palace. He paused when he saw one of his shared folders in his account turn green to indicate a new upload. The notification surprised him because Leon used that particular folder to upload new content.
Glancing at Riku and their friends, who were now drinking coffee as they talked quietly to Amethea, Petr turned off the overhead screen in a panic.
Disconnecting his phone from the laptop Olivier had brought him; Petr moved to a quiet alcove and opened the folder to find new photos. He stilled as the photos of a stunning sunset filled his screen. There was one of Logan standing by a stall eating crepes. Checking the time of upload, Petr’s gaze narrowed.
He started to step out of the alcove only to stop, his gaze on Queen Amethea who was listening to Anselm intently. This was not the right time. He stepped back into the privacy of the alcove and dialed the one number that would confirm his renewed suspicion.